Rwanda: Garment Factory Shifts to Face Masks Production Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Rosalie Gicanda, a 65-year old, supervises a group of workers at one of the sections of a factory as they stitch pieces together that will later produce tightly woven cotton face masks.

Gicanda is one of the owners of companies working under Apparel Manufacturing Group, a collective investment of more than 40 micro garment firms that came together a year ago.

The group does mass production of modern clothes, including men, women, and kids' wear, home textiles like bed covers, and underwear, at its facilities at the Central Business District.

Gicanda's firm and the entire group has turned to their resources and existing facilities to produce face masks for the general public.

"We have been producing all sorts of shirts for men at this unit, but because of the coronavirus outbreak we have shifted focus to produce masks," the former tailor tells The New Times as she gives us a tour of the different colored masks they make.

It's not just Gicanda whose workers are busy, just next to her section is another unit - African Sewing Club - that belongs to George Niyongabo and was previously making t-shirts, sweaters and other types of cloths.

"The new pandemic has forced us to join efforts to respond to the pandemic. This is why all our workers have come back to take on the task," Niyongabo says.

As the world continues to grapple with the new coronavirus outbreak which has devastated countries, the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) is increasing.

This has led some countries to put restrictions on export of the needed protective gear like masks, face shields and gloves.

The idea

Globally stockpiles of protective gear is insufficient, particularly for medical masks and respirators.

Yet, these are some of the widely recommended measures seen to be effective in stopping the spread of the deadly pneumonia virus.

Rwanda released a new directive last week, recommending wearing of face masks to all people, especially in the public.

The move, which will put strain on access to these masks, has made domestic companies pivot to make face masks and other protective gear.

Apparel Manufacturing Group (AMG) is one of the 22 domestic firms that have shifted focus to shore up the supply chain of these vital PPEs.

According to Justus Mugaruka, AMG's Managing Director, the group boasts about 300 modern machines, which until recently were producing all sorts of modern clothes, and have now transformed into face-mask producing operations.

"We sat and said, other factories in other countries are helping their governments to curb the spread of coronavirus, why are we sitting?" he explains.

AMG made samples which were tested by the Rwanda Food and Drugs Authority (FDA), before they could be given a green light to start mass production of barrier masks.

Rwanda FDA issued guidance last week to help manufacturers expand the availability of face masks and respiratory protective devices for the general public and medical personnel.

AMG is among more than 20 firms that Rwanda FDA approved to start production to complement government's efforts, but also fill the gap that has been left as a result of countries blocking export of the needed protective gear.

60,000 masks to be produced

Mugaruka says their factory has dedicated at least 500 artisans who will work two shifts for the next couple weeks to produce at least 60,000 non-surgical face masks on a daily basis.

"This is the first day and all the employees are here, and have started working. We have given ourselves a target of producing at least 60,000 masks every day," he notes.

The company hopes to raise the production capacity in the coming days as workers master the art of making masks, a task that involves a carefully supervised process since masks are tested before they get out to the market.

According to the company's director, the big target is to produce 3 million in the next two weeks.

They say they were able to source enough raw materials - at least four containers of fabrics worth Rwf400 million - from China and India before the global epidemic disrupted the supply chain.

"We are the only company that has enough inputs to produce up to 6 million masks with the materials we have," he says.

Covid-19 cases and deaths are rising steeply, and health systems across the world are under strain, so policy makers are doing everything to curb the virus.

While wearing masks has raised differing views because of the presence of little scientific evidence, some countries have argued it's one of options to protect the public.

This is because masks are simple, cheap, and potentially effective.

It is believed that wearing masks both in the home and also outside the home in situations where meeting others is likely, they could have a substantial impact on transmission with a relatively small impact on social and economic life.

In Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and China, for example, mask wearing is now the norm.

What's the purchase price?

AMG officials say the purchase price for each mask will go for Rwf500, arguably the most affordable price at the market which has been agreed upon by all producers and the government.

The Government has subsidized the production of protective gear to make sure they are accessible at an affordable price by the general public.

There is a plan to have one warehouse from where the masks will be distributed to shops, pharmacies, institutions that need them, and hospitals.

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