Published: 17:35, February 28, 2024 | Updated: 19:28, February 28, 2024
Inner Mongolia town top cat in kitty litter biz
By ​Zheng Yiran in Beijing and Yuan Hui in Hohhot

Ningcheng makes two-thirds of products sold nationwide

A visitor checks out cat litter products during a pet supplies expo in Shanghai in May 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, the small town of Ningcheng produces some two-thirds of all the cat litter in China, and one-fifth of the world's total, with the business bringing improved livelihoods to locals.

The sector has developed to such a scale that a major cat litter industry conference was held in Ningcheng county last year. During the event, industry experts, academicians and entrepreneurs gathered to discuss the development of the business. Ningcheng inked deals with three cat litter enterprises worth over 850 million yuan ($118 million).

Pursuant to the signings, Ningcheng plans to build up the largest bentonite cat litter production base in China — and likely the world's biggest as well — targeting annual production of 2.4 million metric tons.

Cat litter can be divided into clumping and non-clumping varieties, with the former currently most widely used as it has strong moisture absorption and good deodorization properties, as well as being easier to clean. Bentonite is the main component of clumping cat litter. It has good physical and chemical properties, and can be used as a purification and decolorization agent, binder, suspension agent and catalyst. It is also widely used in agriculture, light industry, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other applications.

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Ningcheng boasts 16.4 million tons of bentonite and 2 billion tons of potential mineral resources. It is one of the high-quality bentonite raw material bases in the country. Cat litter enterprises in Ningcheng have rich experience and technological advantages in the fields of bentonite and kaolin processing, and have conducted extensive research into lightweight cat litter and aseptic technologies.

Bentonite cat litter produced in Ningcheng is sold to more than 80 countries and regions around the world. In the domestic market, products are mainly sold in first and second-tier cities, while in overseas markets, they are mainly sold to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia.

With decades of development, bentonite cat litter produced in Ningcheng is highly recognized by the market. Official data showed that local annual sales have reached 1.5 million tons, while demand has been constantly rising.

Zhang Yongsheng, deputy general manager of Ningcheng County Chong'ai Pet Products Co Ltd, said: "In terms of technology, we have introduced advanced granulation machines, dust removal and other equipment. Through the introduction of advanced talent alongside research and development transformation, we have made breakthroughs in coagulation, deodorization, dust-free qualities and renewable properties of cat litter products. Meanwhile, working with the Ningcheng Cat Litter Industry Association and the School of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Science and Technology Beijing, we have made innovations and reforms in cat litter manufacturing technology, taking a leading role in the industry."

Researchers test cat litter quality at a lab in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, in November 2023. (QI XUETAO / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Zhang said that currently, the main distribution channels of the company are Alibaba International, offline exhibitions, social network platforms, independent networks and customer referrals. More than 80 percent of products are exported to over 80 countries and regions in Southeast Asia, South America and the Middle East. Meanwhile, in the domestic market, products are sold via e-commerce platforms, pet stores and shopping malls, and sales have been growing at a compound annual growth rate of around 20 percent.

Zhang Wenhan, head of the Ningcheng Cat Litter Industry Association, said that the cat litter business in Ningcheng is promising.

"The local industry started at a relatively early stage. The county boasts mature technology and rich natural resources, which conform to the development basis of the industry. The county has established an industry association, and held the first industry conference, constantly enhancing its industrial influence. In addition, the local government has included cat litter industry development into the government work plan, and has been optimizing the business environment. There are vast business opportunities," Zhang said.

He said the pet economy in China is still at an initial stage, and the annual growth rate of the market over the past five years has surpassed 10 percent. During the pandemic, the growth rate was as high as over 20 percent.

"With the increasingly graying society, the continuous increase of urbanization rates in China, and backed by the development and scale of overseas pet markets, the sector in China is expected to grow rapidly," Zhang added.

According to a recent report jointly issued by the National Technical Committee on Pet of Standardization Administration, the China Pet Industry Association, the Chinese Veterinary Medical Association and Beijing-based pet platform Pethadoop, China is now the world's second-largest pet market, with the urban pet market worth some 279.3 billion yuan in 2023, up 3.2 percent on a yearly basis. The pet canine market in cities in 2023 rose 0.9 percent year-on-year, while the pet feline sector grew 6 percent.

In 2023, the number of pet dogs nationwide totaled 51.75 million, up 1.1 percent on a yearly basis. Meanwhile, pet cats reached 69.8 million, 6.8 percent higher than the 2022 total.

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According to the report, post-1990s and post-1980s pet owners were still the main consumption demographic in the sector, with the number of post-1990s and post-1980s pet owners growing 2.1 percentage points and 10.8 percentage points, respectively.

With the market boom, Zhang suggested the area grasp business opportunities and tap into the cat litter market.

"Taking advantage of the local high-quality bentonite resources, and making full use of the Ningcheng Cat Litter Industry Association, we should further explore business opportunities in the pet economy, and make Ningcheng a renowned spot for cat litter and the pet economy," he said.

According to a guideline issued by the bureau of industry and information technology in Ningcheng, it plans to invest 1 billion yuan to build a national-level cat litter technology industry park, which is estimated to take up 800 mu (5.33 hectares) and produce over 600,000 tons of cat litter annually.

Meanwhile, it plans to join 32 cat litter enterprises in the area to establish an industry association, register for a Ningcheng cat litter geographical indication trademark, and set up an industry standard for bentonite cat litter.

Chen Qiang, head of the bureau, said: "We will strengthen technological support, enhance product quality, effectively solve the problem of cat litter export tax refunds, vigorously develop the sector, and actively organize enterprises to participate in exhibitions to promote the development of the cat litter business in Ningcheng."

Contact the writers at zhengyiran@chinadaily.com.cn