A baker who developed a way to put bread in cans has helped feed people in hunger and disaster zones worldwide, and his bakery is working flat out to meet demand for emergency food stocks within Japan itself.
Cans from Pan Akimoto Co. each contain enough bread for two meals. The bread lasts for three years, and comes in one of 15 flavors, including orange, strawberry and raisin.
The bakery ships sets of cans to ordinary residents, then collects unopened cans and sends them within the best-by date to needy causes.
Located in Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, the bakery has been operating at full capacity since Japan's devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, when demand for emergency stocks soared nationwide.
In fiscal 2011, the company baked a total 2.5 million cans. That year it sent 15,000 cans to Japan's quake victims, and over the past three years more than 200,000 cans have shipped as aid to 14 countries, including nations as far afield as Zimbabwe and Haiti.
The international shipments take place under a sales package the company calls Kyukancho. (The name means something like "rescue-bird cans.") One Kyukancho set contains 15 cans of bread and sells for 12,000 yen ($150).
People often buy a set to keep at home for emergencies. When looked at in terms of an insurance policy, this means a buyer can store 30 emergency meals at a cost of just 500 yen a month.
After two years, the company collects unused cans and distributes them within their three-year expiry date as food aid.
MEETING A NEED
The bread is the invention of Yoshihiko Akimoto, the 59-year-old president of Pan Akimoto.
He learned a bitter lesson after the devastating 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which left thousands of people dead in the city of Kobe and surrounding areas.
Akimoto's father, a devout Christian, urged him to help survivors. So he and his staff baked about 2,000 loaves and took turns driving the bread to quake survivors.
But it was two days before they could deliver the bread, and found that evacuees could eat only part of the 2,000 loaves. The rest went bad.
A pastor involved in helping victims told Akimoto what they really wanted was bread that lasts a long time, like hardtack, but tastes as good as if it had been freshly baked.
Akimoto embraced the challenge, toiling for hours after his daily work to develop just such a bread.
He mixed and baked, then started over; but try as he might he could not make a long-lasting bread.
Then one day he watched women canning bamboo shoots at a local agricultural produce processing factory, and that gave him an idea.
Allowing dough to rise in the can then baking it all together might just do the trick, he figured. It would sterilize both bread and can and preserve the contents for a long period of time.
He spent a year experimenting with this, and in 1996 Akimoto began marketing his cans of bread.
Initially, sales were poor. But the situation changed overnight when in 2004 a strong earthquake hit Niigata Prefecture.
Orders flooded in after TV stations reported on the delivery of canned bread, purchased and sent as emergency relief by businesses and local governments.
With more orders than he could deal with, the following year Akimoto set up a factory in Okinawa Prefecture.
In fiscal 2011, his bakery produced 2.5 million cans, up from 1 million eight years earlier. In fiscal 2012, estimates say, the bakery will produce 4.5 million cans.
The Kyukancho sales package idea arose from a trying experience Akimoto had with a local-government official in charge of relief aid.
Emergency food stocks are usually disposed of once their expiration date has passed. The official told him to collect and dispose of out-of-date cans in that municipality.
"The experience had me wonder if what we were making would end up in the trash after all," he recalled. It caused him to doubt the value of his work.
Then one day in 2004, he received a request from an acquaintance in Indonesia after a devastating quake occurred off Sumatra. The acquaintance wanted him to send survivors his bakery's leftover bread.
He realized he should be collecting canned bread from buyers before the best-by date expires, and thus the Kyukancho project was born.
Akimoto, curious by nature, never wastes time translating new ideas into action. This summer, he founded a unit in Los Angeles to promote the company's products in the United States.
His motto is something his father used to say: "We should try something never done before precisely because nobody has done it."
* * *
Excerpts from an interview with Akimoto follow:
Question: You have pursued innovative approaches. Canned bread is particularly original.
Answer: In the past, one bakery would compete with another. But times have changed. Bakeries must vie with manufacturers of snack foods, fast foods and packaged lunches. A bakery must compete with a convenience store.
Convenience stores threaten the survival of bakeries because they offer a wide variety of foods, ranging from bread to rice balls. Today, bakeries can even sell good-quality fresh bread by bringing a half-finished product, letting it rise and baking it. Even if they don’t have the skill to bake the finest bread, shoppers will not notice the difference as long as it is fresh from the oven. It would be hard for us to survive in today’s business environment if we don't have a distinctive feature.
Q: What qualities does a bakery need to remain in the market?
A: I am always on alert. Even if you patent a product, it is inevitable that a copy will eventually come out. If medium or large companies get serious and market their own version of canned bread, our company will be wiped out of the market overnight. To prevent this, we need branding. Our endeavor should not be merely the manufacture of food, but the creation of a system around a product's use, or the creation of a social business.
The Kyukancho project is a source of strength, which sets us apart from our rivals. The project can succeed only through tie-ups with private groups and transportation companies. Our company is building know-how and skills as well as a network of groups, which money alone would be unable to buy.
Q: The Kyukancho project has been around for three years. How does it work?
A: If you participate in the project, you receive a set of 15 cans. One can contains an equivalent of two meals of bread. You are supposed to stock them for two years. After two years, one year before the expiration date, we collect them to trade in. It takes time for relief aid to reach people in need because most victims live in war-torn countries and conflict zones.
I called the canned bread Kyukancho (rescue-bird cans) because I saw the cans as birds, freely traveling the world to help save people. We shipped about 30,000 cans to Haiti after the huge quake there in 2010.
I was heartened by the surprisingly positive response when I visited Kenya last year. I was confident about our technology, but I was encouraged to see the product accepted because after all, wheat grows everywhere around the world.
Q: I understand that empty cans have been used as bowls.
A: We initially shipped small cans of bread and learned that empty cans were used as cups. If the cans were larger, we were told, people would be able to use them as bowls. So we doubled the size and made sure that the Kyukancho project uses cans of a design that won't hurt a user with its rim.
Q: In July, you established a U.S. unit to conduct market research.
A: I thought it would be easier for us to gather support from Americans, because they are very interested in charity activities. We have already supplied canned bread to the U.S. troops in Okinawa Prefecture. It even went into space with astronaut Koichi Wakata, who chose our product to take with him during his space shuttle mission in 2009. The United States seems to be a promising market for the Kyukancho project because buyers can keep the bread for themselves and then donate it to an international cause.
We are to determine by autumn next year how we might collaborate more with bodies such as churches and businesses.
Q: You also took a new approach to assist victims in the Great East Japan Earthquake.
A: We set up a nonprofit relief assistance group called We Can, to change radically the traditional system of delivering relief aid. The distribution of emergency goods has never been efficient. We Can aims to deliver goods on stock to victims as soon as possible. By soliciting 5,000 yen ($63) in contributions, the group buys and stockpiles canned bread, water, bedding and other necessities in warehouses across the nation. That way, those goods will go straight to survivors, saving time by not needing to collect supplies from scratch.
Embarking on a new endeavor often involves difficulties. But if it is designed to address a client's problems and meet their needs, it could turn into a huge business opportunity. When you face a challenge, you should tackle it by assuming that you can overcome it. If you put a deadline on your dream, if you want to see it happen by that time, it will become your goal.
Q: Initially, you were not interested in succeeding your father’s bakery business.
A: My father worked all day, from very early in the morning to late into the night. It just looked too tough. But in the end, my grandmother talked me into working as an apprentice at a bakery in Eifukucho in Tokyo, after I graduated from college with a degree in management. About 10 people came from various parts of Japan to work as apprentices at that shop. I whined to my mother on the phone from day one. “This shop could not be worse,” I told her. I worked there for two years, then joined the predecessor of Pan Akimoto in 1978.
When I was a student I aspired to become a pilot because of my father. He had traveled all over the world as a radio operator with what is now Japan Airlines Co. before and during the war. But he was left disabled after an accident and started his own business in 1947. He thought a bread bakery would help westernize Japanese society and resolve food shortages. He wanted to see both of those things. My father suffered enormous hardships as a newcomer, but he was an avid learner. He always paid attention to what was going on in the world. He gave me and other siblings a chance to expand our horizon by visiting foreign countries. I learned from my father's spirit to embrace a challenge.
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