A Kenyan Factory Transformed Into A Surgical Mask Plant In 1 Week & Makes 30,000 Masks Daily

By  |  April 13, 2020

Fast rewind 15 years and Charity Ngilu was serving as Kenya’s Health Minister. Today, she is the Governor of Kitui County, a small county located 100 miles east of the Kenyan Capital, Nairobi.

But this is not the story of how Ngilu rose through the ranks to become a County Governor in East Africa’s largest economy. 

It’s common knowledge that Kenya confirmed its first COVID-19 case on March 13 and that the number of cases has since hit 200+ with 9 deaths so far. Plus curfews and movement restriction orders ar now in effect.

But what many may not know is that the daughter and son-in-law of Ngilu, the said Governor of Kitui County, were among the first 10 persons who tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Kenya. Both had just returned from Spain at the time.

As the fight against COVID-19 intensifies, Kenya, like most other African countries, are coming up against stiff competition from heavily-industrialised economies in bids for masks and other gear. 

Some countries are known to be relying almost entirely on donations made by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, who has shipped 6 million masks to Africa, in addition to huge numbers of gloves, swabs, protective suits and even 500 ventilators. 

But such interventions were never going to be enough. Kenya alone says it needs 15 million masks. And like most African countries, Kenya has little experience manufacturing medical supplies, instead, relying on imports from China and foreign aid.

In some African countries, there have been reports of a shortage of medical equipment, such that medical professionals in South Africa have had to reuse single-use masks and Zimbabwean health workers have had to down their tools. A university in SA has also had to step up to the equipment shortage issue by using 3D-printing to manufacture visors for face shields. 

Now, this is where things get interesting: The Governor of Kitui County, who saw her loved ones become some of the earliest COVID-19 patients in Kenya, decided to act after she got fed up with just sitting around and waiting on imports and donations from China.

“Let’s not wait and wonder,” Charity Ngilu told The Washington Post. “We import everything and produce nothing, despite having all the resources at our disposal.”

Source: The Washington Post

In her capacity as Governor, she transformed a local textile factory into a surgical mask assembly line overnight, churning out up to 30,000 masks each day and selling them to private and public hospitals across the country. The masks match the high industry standards for N95 respirators.

Before now, the Kitui County Textile Centre made all sorts of uniforms and embroidered sets of placemats and napkins. But within a one week period that saw the mostly female workforce learn how to make surgical masks, the factory has undergone some swift changes.

And seeing the work currently being done, it’s hard to imagine that until a little over a week ago, these women knew nothing about surgical masks.

“It was a lot of challenge to bring them from the village to where they are today,” said Mbuvi Mbathi, the factory manager. “But they are all experts now. They could each run their own factory, if you ask me.”

The Kitui County Textile Centre employs nearly 400 stitchers of which 80 percent are women, most of whom never got a formal education.

They are separated into three teams that work in eight-hour shifts, which keeps production going all day and night and also helps them keep their distance from one another.

Each line of workers is tasked with an hourly target of 1250 masks. Workers undergo daily temperature checks before commencing their shifts.

Source: The Washington Post

Instead of commuting daily, each shift sleeps and eats together at a dormitory of a vocational school nearby that is closed because of the pandemic. 

The workers earn less than USD 200.00 a month, but many of them consider the pay to be good for Kitui County, which is not one of Kenya’s upper-class areas.

It may sound like a lot of work for not a lot of money, but The Washington Post gathered that the workers seem happy helping in the fight against COVID-19.

“To sit here and do something that is useful to the world is a dream,” said Wambua, 24, who never went to school. “I never thought I would be part of something that has the potential of saving millions from dying.”

Another worker, Celina Mutiso, 32, said: “We had to stop the things we were doing here to support the country. We should always be there for each other. That’s what this disease has taught us. That you cannot exist alone. You need others.”

Although the Governor’s clamour for domestic production is somewhat diluted by the fact that Kitui factory still uses PVC pellets imported from China as a raw material for the masks’ mesh, the factory is creating value locally while working to keep people safe. Plus PVC pellets are, anyway, much easier to find on the open market than ready-made masks these days.

Source: The Washington Post

Besides that, Governor Ngilu wants to build two more factories as soon as possible, perhaps with the funds the county raises in selling the masks. She also wants to train people across the country to make simpler, cloth-based masks that can be reused, as opposed to the surgical ones, which are single-use.

Due to the curfews and movement restriction orders in effect, Kenyans in the informal sector have suffered. Like in most parts of the developing world, the informal sector accounts for the vast majority of jobs in Kenya.

With a staggering number of informal sector workers blocked from their means of livelihood due to the COVID-19-enforced restrictive measures, there are concerns that the joblessness might devolve into social unrest.

Ngilu believes such affected persons in the informal sector can be taught to make masks and earn a living, given the likelihood that Kenya will see a further spread of the coronavirus over the coming weeks.

By her reckoning, it’s a good way to achieve two of the things Kenya needs most in these times: safety and social stability.

Featured Image Courtesy: The Washington Post

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