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Working with Africa’s apparel makers to produce personal protective equipment

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Hela Clothing?s operation in Kenya has started to produce PPE to meet regional demand. Photo: Courtesy of Hela Clothing Hela Clothing’s operation in Kenya has started to produce PPE to meet regional demand. Photo: Courtesy of Hela Clothing

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented global demand for medical masks, gloves and gowns to protect frontline health workers.

At the same time, apparel manufacturers are seeing a drop in orders for shirts, trousers, dresses, and other goods, leaving factory floors around the world, including in Africa, with idle sewing machines, putting thousands of jobs at risk.

This presents an opportunity. This crisis is creating an opening for apparel manufacturers in Africa, where there is currently limited production of surgical masks, N95 masks and medical-grade gowns. By adjusting production lines and sourcing new materials, apparel makers can become mask and gown producers—which is exactly what some producers across Africa are starting to do.

But what does it take to retool? It requires new sewing patterns to make masks and gowns and materials that meet strict medical requirements. For some products, such as N95 masks, it means installing new production equipment. It also requires an understanding of certain quality standards, licenses and certification requirements. To ensure safe social distancing and hygiene practices in the workplace, it also means rethinking floor layouts to ensure workers are safe.

While switching production from apparel to masks and gowns is easier said than done, over the past two months, some manufacturers are showing they can make the leap.

For example, with International Finance Corporation (IFC) support, Hela Clothing  shifted its Kenyan manufacturing facility from making men’s underwear to making masks. Hela produced 10 million face masks in Kenya in April and May, 90% of which were standard three-ply surgical masks, with the remaining 10% being reusable fabric masks. The company is also working on starting production of the more sophisticated N95 respirator masks, which it will provide to clients in Kenya and other countries in Africa.

IFC is also helping Mauritius-based CIEL Limited repurpose its textile facility in Madagascar to produce medical protective wear.

Shifting a factory to produce protective health equipment is, of course, fraught with challenges. These include managing export restrictions in many countries, sourcing appropriate non-woven material that protects against coronavirus but is breathable, acquiring new machinery, and learning to use that machinery in a world where technicians cannot travel.

Even when these hurdles are cleared, a manufacturer’s medical and N95 masks must be tested in approved labs, though few countries have these facilities.

To help clients makes a more seamless transition to health equipment production, at IFC we are introducing them to producers of nonwoven fabric, the raw material needed for medical masks, and to providers of patterns, tech packs and cut files. We are also connecting clients in non-medical industries, such as hotels and food processing that need masks, to apparel manufacturers already making the shift, such as Hela Clothing.

To share lessons, we are also hosting peer-to-peer virtual learning sessions so companies can share their experiences. Our next webinar for manufacturers in Africa will take place on May 19 and IFC’s “How to Start PPE Production” website houses resources to help other companies from fabric guidelines to a step-by step guide.

This is all part of IFC’s work with apparel businesses and brands to build their competitiveness while also helping their suppliers to address the environmental and social challenges in the garment sector. It includes the Better Work partnership with the UN’s International Labour Organization, which convenes representatives and stakeholders from across the garment industry—from labor to management, suppliers to brands, and regulating bodies to multinational businesses—to boost competitiveness through improved working conditions.

The fight against COVID-19 requires a reliable supply of quality masks and gowns, with demand from hospitals and clinics expected to remain strong for many more months. At IFC, we will continue to support producers of medical protective wear to protect health workers during a time when their efforts are helping protect us all.


Mary-Jean Moyo

IFC’s Regional Industry Director for Manufacturing, Agribusiness and Services in the Middle East and Africa

Tania Lozansky

IFC’s Senior Manager of Advisory for Manufacturing, Agribusiness and Services sectors

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