Friday 14th of June 2024

Nairobi, Kenya

Mitumba Clothes Ban May Crimp Kenyan Style, It May Also Lift Local Designers.

Kenya has halted imports of secondhand clothes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The move limits fashion selection, but opens doors for the country’s designers and manufacturers.

Catherine Muringo with some of the bales of mitumba, or secondhand clothes, that she buys and sells. She said the import ban threatens her business.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

Catherine Muringo’s wardrobe consists of secondhand outfits shipped from all over the world: colorful blouses and jeans from Canada, floral dresses from the United States, trench coats from Australia and leather handbags from the United Kingdom.
For years, Ms. Muringo bought the used clothes and accessories at cheap prices in open-air markets in Nairobi and used them to fashion her own idiosyncratic style.

Seven years ago, she also started a business buying and selling such items, distributing castoff fur coats, hoodies and shoes to customers in Kenya and in foreign markets like Botswana, Uganda and Tanzania.
But in late March, the Kenyan government banned the importation of used garments in what it said was a precautionary measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Even though used clothes are fumigated before being shipped, Kenyan authorities said they were taking precautions because of the spike in infections in countries like the United States.

Now, businesses like hers are threatened, as well as the sartorial choices of millions of Kenyans who depend on low-cost imports to stay stylish.
“Kenyans love to go to the secondhand markets and spend hours looking and searching,” Ms. Muringo said. “Kenyans love the diversity of secondhand.”

Officials also said the banning of imported clothing  known as mitumba, the Swahili word for “bundles” could have an unexpected benefit. It could help Kenya revive its own textile industry, which was wiped out in the late 1980s as the country started opening its markets to foreign competition.

“I think corona has shown not just for Kenya but for many countries to look inward a lot and try and fill some of the market gaps,” said Phyllis Wakiaga, the chief executive of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. “The reality is that there’s a big opportunity for us to produce local clothes for the citizens.”

Shops in Toi Market, one of Nairobi’s most popular stops for secondhand goods, have been hurt by the coronavirus and the import ban.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

For years, Kenya, along with other countries in East Africa, had tried to phase out used clothing to boost local manufacturing. But the countries faced the threat of being removed from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which promotes trade by providing reduced or duty-free access to the American market. Many countries backed off from instituting a ban on imported clothing, with the exception of Rwanda.

The coronavirus gave Kenya a chance to promote its own clothing manufacturing, but thwarted a lively trade.
In Nairobi, the combination of the import ban, plus lockdown measures and an overnight curfew introduced to stamp out the virus, have drastically lessened the hive of activity at the popular Gikomba and Toi thrift markets, mazes of narrow pathways packed with bellowing vendors and piles of clothes, shoes and household goods.

As the largest importer of used clothing in East Africa, Kenya, with its new ban, is expected to upend not just supply chains but also lead to a hemorrhage in jobs connected to the trade and the loss of millions of dollars from government coffers as tax revenue and import duties fall.

But where some see problems, others see opportunity.
Wagura Kamwana, the proprietor of a fabric shop, the Textile Loft, is seeking to capitalize on this moment.
Ms. Kamwana, 40, grew up wearing hand-stitched clothes from her mother, and later on, sought trendy outfits at secondhand markets. Kenyans like used clothes, she said, both for their affordability and because of the their high-quality fabrics.

In 2016, she opened her store, offering premium quality fabrics, sourced from Europe, to Kenyans who wanted to create high-end fashion locally.

In 2018, she started also offering production services to designers looking to develop smaller lines who were being turned away by factories only interested in bulk orders.

Wagura Kamwana, founder of the Textile Loft, looks over a finished garment.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

Ms. Kamwana has already worked with prominent local designers like Katungulu Mwendwa.
The pandemic has also offered the chance to start her own clothing line. Her new label is set to produce everyday clothing for women including dresses, scarves and trousers ranging from $25 to $150.

Ms. Kamwana said designers and manufacturers should collaborate and take baby steps to push the industry toward maturity.
“This whole value chain will take quite a few years to be feasible or to be seen,” she said, adding, “what we can do immediately is perfect our art of making.”

Rolls of fabric at the Textile Loft.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

Other Kenyan companies are also responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic by focusing locally.

Frederick Bittiner Wear, which does fabric selection, design and tailoring for retailers in East Africa, Europe and the United States, has seen a reduction in orders because of the pandemic, so it has turned to producing leggings, T-shirts and vests for the local market, said Dominic Agesa, the managing director.

After approaching distributors with samples, Mr. Agesa said he got 50 orders in a week.
For too long, “Kenya has been reluctant” to incentivize local manufacturers, he said, but the import ban was one step toward making conditions more favorable for a local scene to eventually flourish.

“Are we able to satisfy the Kenyan market and beyond? Mr. Agesa said. “Gradually, the answer is yes.”

Suave Kenya is a brand that transforms secondhand clothes ranging from silk shirts to leather jackets into stylish and colorful tote bags, backpacks and wallets. With the import ban, its founder, Mohamed Awale, is looking into sourcing from local tanneries and textile factories.

“If the pandemic persists, we will have to adapt while still producing the type of bright bags that make us unique,” said Mr. Awale, 32. “When we source locally, we create jobs and make our industries grow.”

The Suave Kenya workshop, where backpacks, bags and accessories are produced from up-cycled materials and locally sourced fabrics.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

Nowhere is the shift to adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic more visible than in the special export zones on Nairobi’s outskirts. Established in 1990, these zones offer companies less regulations plus tax incentives to promote export-oriented businesses.

But with borders closed and exports plunging, some of the clothing factories have begun servicing the Kenyan market, with the country temporarily allowing manufacturers to exceed the usual limit of supplying no more than 20 percent of their annual production to local markets.

Shona EPZ has 500 employees and makes reflective work clothes for companies like 3M and apparel for department stores like T.J. Maxx. But since the pandemic began, the firm has pivoted toward making personal protective equipment for Kenya, producing tens of thousands of masks and surgical gowns per day, said its director, Isaac Maluki.

Mr. Maluki said he has also partnered with secondhand importers and small-scale manufacturers, that, with the ban on used clothing, are increasingly considering collaborating with larger companies like his to make clothes for local consumption.

“We want to really encourage them to see the kind of quality that comes out of here that can be shared into the local market,” he said. “The local market is huge.”

Workers at Shona EPZ have shifted from manufacturing apparel for export to producing personal protective equipment for Kenya.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

But before a robust clothing sector takes hold, experts say local manufacturers will have to overcome a host of challenges, including inadequate access to finance, the high cost of electricity, and the lack of raw materials, including cotton.

The fact that powerful lobby groups for the secondhand clothing industry in the United States have already criticized Kenya’s move doesn’t bode well either, said Emily Anne Wolff, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who has studied plans to phase out used clothing in East Africa.

Kenya is aiming to be the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the United States, which could undermine Kenya’s will to retain the clothing ban.

Used clothes traders have appealed to the government in recent days to lift the ban, saying there is no public health risk associated with the trade. But officials have so far ruled that option out.

For now, Kenyan designers and manufacturers say the ban gives them a window of opportunity to start shaping the future of fashion in Kenya.

“Now is a good time to make choices and changes,” said Ms. Kamwana, the owner of Textile Loft. “You will be surprised by what comes out of this country.”

Story By Abdi Latif Dahir
Photo By Khadija Farah

This article originally appeared on New York Times 

Ghana Becomes the first Country to Launch Covid-19 Inspired Fashion Print Designs

Some of the designs have padlocks to symbolise lockdown measures

A Ghanaian fabric company has launched a new line of designs inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic. “[We] put a positive twist on a negative phenomenon” Stephen Badu, from Ghana Textiles Printing (GTP), told BBC Focus on Africa radio.

The new fabrics have symbols like padlocks, keys and planes to reflect some of the measures implemented to curb the spread of coronavirus, African prints are popular in Ghana and many workers wear them on Fridays.

Two of Ghana’s main metropolitan areas were in lockdown in April – and nationwide there was a ban on public gatherings and the closure of borders.
Restrictions have since been eased though strict social-distancing measures are in place, especially in churches and it is a criminal offence not to wear a face mask in public.

The West African nation has reported more than 20,000 cases of Covid-19, with at least 129 people dying from the virus. “We are a business that tells stories and we tells our stories through our designs,” Mr Badu, GTP’s marketing director, said.

The capital, Accra, and the city of Kumasi were put into lockdown for three weeks

“We believe that it is going to leave a mark in the history of the world, and it’s important that generations that come after us get to know that once upon a time, such a phenomenon occurred.”

Some of the new GTP designs have glasses on them similar to the signature ones worn by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, who has been giving regular updates on the virus.

The round spectacles look like those worn by the president

“He has iconic spectacles that he wears and when you watch him on television that is what stands out,” Mr Badu said. “Another design shows a symbol of a plane, it indicates that during the lockdown one of the measures that Ghana took was to close the borders, so no flights,” he added.

Flights were stopped during the lockdown

In 2004, the government started a campaign to get people to wear national dress on Fridays to support the local textile industry, yet a lot of the fabric worn is not made by African firms.

The designs were created by Ghanaians

Ghana Textiles Printing, despite its name, is owned by Dutch company Vlisco, But Mr Badu said the new designs were all about Ghanaians telling their own history.

“The designs which we print now are all originated by Ghanaians and printed by Ghanaians, so behind every design we produce it’s our value systems, our sense of art, and how we communicate,” he said.

This article originally appeared on BBC


Halima Aden and Anywear Team Up to Create Masks for Hijabi Frontline Workers 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, shortages of masks and PPE gear have posed a problem, particularly within the United States. Thanks to generous donations from private organizations and designers making efforts to produce additional supplies, the situation has improved. Still, even when frontline workers have access to the right gear, issues can arise.

Created for short-term use rather than 24/7 wear, traditional masks can quickly become uncomfortable. In fact many hospital workers have reported scarring and irritation due to the restrictive ear straps. For hijabi doctors and nurses the situation is further complicated with standard-issue masks that don’t account for headscarves and facial coverings.

With its debut collection, Anywear attempts to address those issues. Dubbed “Banding Together,” the capsule of specially designed face coverings serve as an extra protective barrier and shield for reusable masks like the N95. Fashion heavyweights such as hairstylist Chris McMillan and makeup artist Daniel Martin were among Anywear’s first collaborators. Now model Halima Aden has come on board with a range of hijab and turban sets.

Many brands have pivoted to mask making, but few have addressed the needs of frontline workers from all faiths. Aden’s custom hijabs add something new to the equation and the market precisely what Anywear’s cofounders Emily Shippee and Adi-Lee Cohen had in mind. Inspired by the needs of real frontline workers, who Shippee interviewed as part of a story for Allure , the project expanded into an ongoing collaboration curated by the magazine’s editors.


“When I started speaking to Adi about inclusivity and the designs, we wanted to make sure we included women who need to cover their hair and do so comfortably,” explained Shippee via email. “Of course, nobody was better for that than Halima because she used to clean hospital rooms when she first started working and had valuable, firsthand experiences.”

Content courtesy of Vogue

Fashionomics Africa’s Debut Webinar Series Discusses Opportunities and Threats for The African Fashion Industry

The African Development Bank’s Fashionomics Africa initiative on Tuesday launched its first webinar series to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry. In total, 136 fashion entrepreneurs, digital innovators and creative minds joined the discussion. The theme of the first episode of the series was: “What does the COVID-19 disruption mean for Africa’s Fashion Market? Opportunities and Threats for Fashionpreneurs and Investors.”


Supporting investment for the micro, small and medium enterprises in the creative and cultural industries, creating the right environment for the financial sector to play its full part in powering growth, lies at the heart of the African Development Bank’s agenda,” said Vanessa Moungar, Director of the Gender, Women and Civil Society Department at the African Development Bank.

The participants exchanged ideas and shared lessons learned on how to take advantage of online tools to strengthen businesses. Panelists included representatives from supply chain giant Maersk, the HEVA Fund for financing creative industries, the founder of made-in-Africa online brand Tongoro, and Afrikrea – an African e-commerce platform specializing in fashion and crafts.

“African fashion is rising right now. African designers need to develop their unique business model and have to be innovative. To do so, digital is key,” said Sarah Diouf, founder of Tongoro. “It’s a tool that we can truly leverage to our advantage. Africa has many stories to share and tell.”

Wakiuru Njuguna, Investment Manager and Partner at the HEVA Fund, said sustainability was going to be key to the future of fashion. “Going forward, sustainable fashion is going to be the way to go. The African fashion brands need to be ready to answer the questions they will be asked,” she said.

Subsequent Fashionomics Africa webinars will be available on the Fashionomics Africa Digital Marketplace and Mobile App (available both on IOS and Android). The platform aims to help Africa’s fashion designers, textile and accessories professionals connect with regional and global markets. Sign up on Fashionomics Africa here. Registration is free.

Fashionomics Africa leverages data and communication technologies to help entrepreneurs access business skills, finance and other tools.

Content courtesy of The African Development Bank & Fashionomics Africa

How the Columbia Student Services Corps Has Pivoted Its Efforts to Help Get PPE to Protestors to Prevent Spread of Covid-19 

Protestors in Foley Square in the Manhattan Borough of New York on June 02, 2020, USA. Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

In February, a group of students at Columbia University Irving Medical Center wanted to combine their various avenues of study in order to help stop the spread of Covid-19. So, they quickly mobilized student leaders throughout various disciplines the dental school, the nursing school, the public health school, and the psychology school⁠ and they launched the Covid-19 Student Services Corps or CSSC.

The idea was to create a wide-ranging and multi-tiered service-learning model that would help with various issues that arose just after the pandemic landed in the U.S. These initiatives include mental health programs, a community food delivery arm called Hero Meals, as well as telemedicine. Students were and still are encouraged to submit their own proposals for new initiatives where they see more needs have arisen.

In addition, the CSSC created a program called Mask Check, which helped provide much-needed PPE to local shelters and jails in the New York area. Shayna Feuer, who is currently getting her masters degree in nursing, is helping to head up this arm of the CSSC. Through virtual sewing groups, Feuer and her team of around 14 students distribute the donated masks themselves, mainly to shelters and prisons in and around the Washington Heights area, where Columbia is located.

They also lead virtual sewing classes so that Columbia students can help make masks, in addition to the donated masks they receive. And while they were most recently focused on sewing masks that were permissible by the jails (there are strict rules about fabric, elastic ties, and colors for inmate masks), Feuer and the Mask Check team have since shifted focus.

On Monday, they focused their efforts on supporting the protestors advocating for systemic change in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by four Minneapolis police officers. “As allies and public health workers, we want to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and contribute to safe protesting,” Feuer says, adding:

“Mask Check has fully shifted our focus to collecting and donating PPE to the protestors.” Feuer says that she and her team realized there was a huge need for PPE for protestors in New York, as Covid-19 is still a very present and real threat especially in the black community, which it has affected disproportionately.

“Members of our team have attended protests nearly every day this week,” Feuer says. “We also thought that it was time for us to further step up and show Columbia’s dedication not only to this city but to the nation and the world.”

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Content courtesy of Vogue 

African Fashion Designers take on COVID-19 in style

Turning face masks into a fashion statement in Africa, the face mask has become a global symbol in the fight against COVID-19. But for fashion designers in Africa, the masks are more than just a protective piece of cloth. Here are some of the best styles from the continent.

Who says face masks have to be bland?

In Africa, fashion designers are injecting some style into masks to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic encouraging mask use while letting people show some individuality.

Here are some face mask collection from Africa fashion designer:


Lagos has more than twice the population of New York City and a robust fashion scene, where designers have long harnessed style as a tool for communication.

The city’s runways have promoted recycling, gender equality and traditional African artistry themes meant to nourish the greater good, said Omoyemi Akerele, founder of Lagos Fashion Week. Some fashion houses are consulting doctors, she said, and sourcing fabric for mask production. (The community has also donated soap to garment workers.)

“Fashion is a voice for change,” she said. “It can save lives.”

Many in Nigeria and the United States  haven’t grasped the severity of the coronavirus threat. Warnings from celebrities can help. (The U.S. surgeon general urged Kylie Jenner, for instance, to inform her 167 million Instagram followers about the importance of social distancing.)

Content courtesy of DW & Washington post

North Devon fashion brand is helping to fight Coronavirus in African countries

A not-for-profit fashion brand based in North Devon has donated more than £3,500 to help the fight against coronavirus in African countries.

Origin, founded by Alice and Tom Cracknell from Woolacombe, is helping African communities fight the spread of Covid-19 with its Every Single Penny campaign.

Origin has always donated 100 per cent of its profits to humanitarian projects in Gambia, Ethiopia, Mali and more recently, Togo.

But in response to the global pandemic the husband-and-wife-team have upped their donations to include 100 per cent of all revenue from every garment sold.

The money will be donated in the form of cash grants to enable projects in each country to purchase PPE locally, provide improved sanitation and help educate communities.

Origin has already donated £3,500 and counting since the beginning of April.

Alice said: “While the UK continues its lockdown, the pandemic is only touching the surface in Africa and it is a sad fact that with less resources the repercussions there will be much greater than those we face here.

“We felt it was extremely important, now more than ever, to continue in our support of communities in developing countries which is why we’ve launched Every Single Penny.

Origin has donated all revenue from every garment sold during April. Find out more at originafrica.co.uk or @origin_africa on Instagram.

Content courtesy of Origin Africa 

The Fight Against Covid-19 Kenya Fashion Council Community Spirit

In an effort to further curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Kenyan government has directed all citizens to wear masks when in public spaces.

On March 30th, Kenya Fashion Council put out an appeal on social media, requesting designers and fashion industry members to share information on their capacity to produce face masks and PPEs.


Within 24 hours, the Kenya Fashion Council had received more than 800 emails from individuals and businesses. By the following day, there were 1,520 emails in total. KFCO also went ahead and created a manual for public use on the creation of a reusable cloth face mask. The same was shared with designers and tailors, enabling them to continue with a form of production and income generation in a time of crisis.

Kenya Fashion Council is working with all the relevant stakeholders to not only provide safe masks for the population but income generation strategies for its designers and tailors whose businesses have been hit hard during this pandemic.

Sterilization Centre – The Safe Masks For All Initiative
Kenya Fashion Council has created an opportunity for its members to produce safe masks for the public by partnering with a sterilization centre. This partnership allows members to drop their cloth face masks at the centre where quality check is performed before sterilization, packaging and labeling.

The already tested, state of the art sterilization centre is well equipped and has the capacity 10 sterilize 4,800 face masks per day.

A customer in receipt of the KE-2 mask can rest assured that it is safe for use and free from contaminants. Designers who would like to use the sterilization centre should have the capacity to deliver a minimum of 120 labeled masks. The quality assurance step ensures that only quality masks are accepted for this process, upholding excellence in production.

The masks produced illustrate the KFCO spirit of innovation and excellence as every mask is individually sterilized, packaged and labeled. KFCO has partnered with Brand Kenya and these high quality, safe, reusable cloth face masks are proof that as Kenyans, we are more than capable of impacting, innovating and producing quality goods! We have the answer to our problems and creative strategies are within.

Get Your Ke-2 Face Mask Delivered To You!
The Kenya Fashion Council team has been working day and night to not only coordinate production efforts of face masks but also seek distribution channels to ease accessibility of the same. Kenyans can now conveniently place an order online via JUMIA Kenya and receive the high quality KE-2 masks at their doorstep.

The council has negotiated rates for its members with JUMIA Kenya , which means Kenya Fashion Council Members can now set up shop and sell their masks online,  automatically increasing their customer reach. KFCO is working towards multiple distribution channels to ensure Kenyans have access to quality reusable cloth face masks.

Kenya fashion council mask available here on Jumia link

Are You A Member?
Due to the current global situation as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Kenya Fashion Council has extended its introductory offer on 90% off membership till 31st May 7020! Membership registration starts from as little as KES 2,500. As a member you can access the great rates KFCO has negotiated with JUMIA Kenya and reach your customers online with just a few steps!

Website:  kenyafashioncouncil.co.ke to access discounted membership and join the family! Begin your journey to your online store!

Join The Fight
Kenya Fashion Council is committed to reach every comer of society and provide safe masks to all Kenyans. We have partnered with NYS to enable mass face mask production. NYS engaged a total of 53 tailors from Jericho, Ngara, Taveta court, Kibra and Nairobi Textile.

The work commenced on 28th of April and as at 4th of May 16, 122 masks had been produced. We are looking into further developing patterns for other PPEs as well. The community spirit has been strong and a good example of this is David Juma, pictured below.

Mr Juma received support from the Kenya Fashion Council family who donated cloth and elastic materials totaling 30 meters. Mr Juma also received the KFCO manual which has guidelines on face mask creation and uses this to train others.

Get in touch if you would like to join us in our community efforts! Lets join hands and fight this pandemic together. We are stronger together.

Content courtesy of Kenya Fashion Council

Fashion Players in Kenya Donated Free Face Masks to Residents Of Kasarani

Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry ( KNCCI ), in partnership with several fashion players came together on Thursday April 16th to donate free Corona Virus masks to residents of the Kasarani community in Nairobi.

Today the Fashion industry players in Kenya Led by JW  and Brenda  teamed up to help donate free masks to the Kasarani community in partnership with the Kenya National Chambers of commerce, powered by JW SHOW ,Marumara creations, Suit guru,Hando Africa Designs,Sibala Group, Standard Media and KBC grapevine.


Kenya has so far managed to produce 1 million face masks to help in the fight against the new coronavirus, Plans are underway to produce an additional 60 million masks with CS Maina saying Kenya’s four biggest fabric manufacturers will be supplying the needed fabric,The locally produced masks which have been clinically approved have three layers; an outer layer, a filter and an inner layer and can be used by everyone including health workers.

Led by the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Industrialization, Trade and Enterprise Development, Hon. Betty C Maina, the government officials approved and commended the local traders for their noble effort in assisting the government to fight the deadly pandemic.

” Covid-19 challenge has given us an opportunity to re-discover our innovativeness. We need to celebrate our innovators: CS Industry and Trade ”

Hon. Betty C Maina

When to use a mask

  • Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • Cover mouth and nose with mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.
  • Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single-use masks.
  • To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

When and how to wear medical masks to protect against coronavirus?

  • If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with COVID-19.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.

Content courtesy of The Jw Show, Kenya Fashion players WHO & Nairobi fashion hub 




Kitui County Textile Centre ( KICOTEC ) Factory that Transformed into a Surgical Mask Assembly Line Overnight

KITUI, Kenya A week ago, Josephine Wambua spent her days stitching gardening clothes. This week, the factory where she works transformed into an all-out effort to make 30,000 surgical masks a day in a country that barely produced any before.

A worker produces face masks at the Kitui County Textile Center in Kitui, Kenya, on Tuesday. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

“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.”

The factory’s shift in production reflects a dire need for even the most basic protective equipment here. Like Kenya, most African countries have little experience manufacturing medical supplies, instead relying on imports from China and foreign aid.

But as the coronavirus spreads more widely on the continent, African governments are coming up against stiff competition from heavily industrialized economies in bids for masks and other gear. Some are 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. Kenya alone says it needs 15 million masks.

African countries are not the only ones struggling to provide enough masks for their health workers nor is Africa the only place receiving millions of them from China. But while wealthier countries are counting on huge corporations to bridge the supply gap, others are turning to humbler means.

Before each shift, workers line up to have their temperature checked, a measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at the Kitui County Textile Center. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

In Mexico, for instance, hundreds of small businesses are switching to mask production — as are prisoners, who are being put to work on mask assembly lines. And in the Palestinian territories, a shoe factory has switched over to masks, and an engineer duo is even making their own ventilators.

In this small county 100 miles east of Nairobi, the governor decided last month that she was fed up with waiting on imports or donations from China. She knew how quickly the coronavirus could spread: Not only was she Kenya’s health minister 15 years ago, but her daughter and son-in-law became two of Kenya’s first 10 confirmed cases upon returning from a trip to Spain.

A doctor checks an employee’s temperature. None of the employees are allowed to commute home; instead, they sleep at a dormitory next to the factory. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

“Let’s not wait and wonder,” said Charity Ngilu, sitting at an appropriate social distance at the end of a long conference table in her governor’s office in Kitui. “We import everything and produce nothing, despite having all the resources at our disposal.”

Kenya has fewer than 200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and just one in Kitui County so far. But the county is churning out as many as 30,000 masks a day and selling them to private and public hospitals across the country, which are desperate for them.

Nearly 400 stitchers work in the factory, and 80 percent are women, most of whom never got a formal education. They once made all sorts of uniforms, and even embroidered sets of place mats and napkins, but now all their effort is focused on surgical masks that match the high industry standards for N95 respirators. They were retrained in just a week.

Workers gather to check the day’s production of face masks. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

“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.”

Nearly 400 stitchers work in the factory, and 80 percent are women. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

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. Instead of commuting, each shift sleeps and eats together at a dormitory of a vocational school next door that is closed because of the outbreak. They get paid less than $200 a month, but some said they consider the pay to be good for Kitui County, one of Kenya’s poorest areas.

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

The factory floor pulsates with the thrum of sewing machines and is littered with piles of the mesh, string and wire that make up the masks. A big whiteboard has the hourly target for each line of workers: 1,250.

Ngilu’s call for domestic production instead of reliance on China is diluted somewhat by the fact that the raw material of the mesh that makes up the majority of the mask known as PVC pellets is imported from China. So far, though, PVC pellets are much easier to find on the open market than masks themselves.

“The only jobs we have in this country anymore are in warehouses and shops, distributing Chinese goods,” said Ngilu. “This is why we remain poor and underprepared for shocks, like a pandemic.”

A supervisor carries a handful of face masks at the Kitui County factory. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

Ngilu wants to build two more factories as soon as possible, perhaps with 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.

The workers used to make uniforms. They were retrained in a week. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

Like in most of the developing world, the vast majority of Kenya’s jobs are “informal,” meaning they are neither taxed nor beholden to any kind of worker protection. Now that Kenya has imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and heavy restrictions on movement around the country, many in the informal sector have lost their jobs.

Ngilu said they should be taught to make masks, given the likelihood that Kenya will see further spread of the coronavirus over the coming weeks. That might lessen the chances of social unrest because of joblessness while creating something Kenya dearly needs or maybe even enough for export to other African countries.

The factory workers say they’d give the work a rave review, at least compared with stitching gardening trousers.

“We are now making not just clothes for people, but assisting millions of Kenyans to get something very important that they need at this time,” said Hellen Mawia, 35, a mother of four. “That makes my hours here worth it.”

This article originally appeared on Washington Post 

Author : Max Bearak The Washington Post’s Nairobi bureau chief. 

Photos courtesy of  Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images