COVID-19: Entrepreneurs in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya Begin Mass Surgical-Mask Production


Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people are in a desperate search for means to protect themselves from the virus. As such face masks, both N95 respirators and surgical masks, are some of the goods flying off shelves due to panic buying.

According to reports, face masks are generally effective at reducing the chances of infection but are most effective when worn by those infected and people at the frontline taking care of them.

Coronavirus Map in Nigeria.

But panic buying is causing a shortage for people who really need them, and China which is its major producer has reduced shipment to the world.

With little or no experience in producing protective equipment for its healthcare workers, African governments are facing huge competition from industrialized economies in bids for masks and other gear. As such they have had to turn towards aids and philanthropic efforts to get them.

And while philanthropic efforts like that of Jack Ma is ensuring that Africa gets some of this basic protective equipment in the fight against COVID-19, it’s still not sufficient.

This has forced efforts by manufacturers across the continent to ensure that face masks, specifically the surgical masks, are being replaced on the shelves, as soon as possible.

In Nigeria, tailors in Aba, a popular manufacturing hub in the eastern part of the country have begun producing these kits. Materials such as the PVC pellets are sourced locally and from the international market to produce facemasks to make up for the scarcity of imported ones.

“The governor does not want Abia people to be exploited and that was part of the reason he gave this challenge to Aba tailors to start producing these kits.”

Sam Hart, Director-General of the Abia State Marketing and Quality Management Agency

Similar efforts are also available in Kenya and Ghana. In Kenya, a gardening clothes factory has been retrofitted to produce facemasks. About 400 workers are charged with producing as many as 30,000 masks a day for sale to private and public hospitals across the country.

COVID-19: Surgical Mask Production Begins in Nigeria and Other African Countries
Face Mask manufacturing in Kenya. Source: WashingtonPost.

In Ghana, an NGO is collaborating with an international network to create fabric face masks quickly for those in need. The masks are made from Ghana’s colourful, printed cotton and are reusable.

The Question of Quality

The masks are of great importance because they can trap germs, and protect people from forcefully expelled secretions. If a mask is unable to do these, it’s no different from using a handkerchief to cover the nose and mouth.

There’s the question of quality of these face masks and whether they meet up with international medical and quality standards.

According to Sam Hart, the production in Nigeria is done together with medical practitioners for specifications on production. However, since they are made by independent tailors, there’s still this question of how quality is ensured across the different factories.

Global Mamas' sewing instructor and technical designer Elizabeth Adams prepares a pattern for the fabric face masks. (Photo Courtesy of Global Mamas)
The Face Mask production in Ghana. Source: VOANews

In Kenya, the workers in the factory were trained for a week and are not allowed to commute home to mitigate the risk of getting the disease. They all sleep and eat together at the dormitory of a vocational school close by. They also claim to produce surgical masks that match the high industry standards.

In Ghana, however, the masks produced by the NGO are said to not be medical grade. While not disputing the claim, founder, Renae Adam believes they can play a part in protecting users, especially since medical masks are in short supply.

It is important that these masks are produced following safety precautions and that they are of standard quality, else they will not filter fine respiratory droplets.

Even China had to increase quality control on its surgical face masks, which have been in high demand to ensure that no substandard products are shipped.

Countries should also ensure that non-professional players taking the chance are closely monitored so as not to cause more harm than good.

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