Will local firms cope with the demand for face masks?

Workers at a local textile factory in Kigali, which makes face masks. The 22 local firms that have been authorised to manufacture the masks are expected to meet the high demand after the Government ordered compulsory wearing of face masks. Photo: Courtesy

Over the weekend, the Ministry of Health announced that henceforth, it will be mandatory for people to wear masks whenever they step out of their homes in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Consequently, the Food and Drug Authority announced that 22 local firms had received approval for production and sale of face masks in the country.

 

The firms were required to present samples which were matched against global standards and requirements for the approval process.

 

The approval saw barrier masks made out of approved fabric or cloth added to the list of approved personal protective equipment.

 

Previously, only surgical masks and N95 respirator were common but often in short supply as they were imported.

Firms who spoke to The New Times said that over the weekend, they had been working on repurposing their production plants to respond to the demand which production expected to kick off today.

With most of the companies previously operating as garment manufacturers, they said that their staff have adequate skills in production of quality barrier masks which had so far received approval from the regulator.

A majority of producers who spoke to this newspaper said that they were pursuing industry prices between Rwf500 to Rwf900 for a reusable mask, meaning that retail prices could be higher.

This is also with a consideration that some members of the public might want to acquire more than one mask per person.

With Rwanda’s population estimated at over 12 million citizens and residents, unofficial estimates put required masks at as much as 20 million taking into account ownership of over one mask by some as well as replacements over time. 

Local production of the masks will, among other things, reduce the dependence on imports which have also been problematic.

Some economic blocs have put restrictions on exports of medical equipment outside their bloc to meet their demand needs. 

In the instances where the imports of products such as masks are available, they are expensive and out of reach for the ordinary public.

For instance, a quick spot check across a number of pharmacies established that single use masks were retailing at between Rwf1,000 to Rwf1,500 per piece.

This means that an essential service provider could spend up over Rwf5,000 per week if they are relying on imported masks. 

Laurène Umutoni, the founder of UZI Collections, a popular garment producer in the country told The New Times that since presenting samples for approval, her firm had been making adjustments in readiness for production.

Beyond production of masks, the firm has also put in place measures to ensure hygienic packaging based on the guidelines by the regulator.

The firm kicks off production today with a target of production of between 400-500 masks daily with employees working two shifts a day. The enterprise is further working on the possibility of increasing production capacity.

Further planning, Umutoni said, has involved working with producers of raw materials and fabric to ensure that they do not run short of raw materials.

“We have already engaged suppliers such as UTEXRWA to make sure that we have a steady supply of quality raw materials at affordable costs,” she said.

While the brand might have previously been known for fancy outfits, she said that repurposing production will also see quality maintained at costs affordable to all people.

Joy Ndungutse the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Gahaya Links another firm that has approval to produce the masks said that the company’s business model works on a social enterprise model involving women from all across the country including rural areas.

With a network of over 4000 women, she said that they are in position to respond to the demand of masks by integrating as many women as will be required in the process.

This she said would also ensure that the women, especially from rural households, have income at a time when most of their revenue streams had been halted as a result of the lockdown.

She noted that with the pandemic and its consequent effects, as opposed to competition they were engaging in partnership and cooperation along the value chain to ensure production to maximum capacity.

“In the production process, we are working with partners as opposed to competing to make sure that as much raw material is available to ensure that all Rwandans have access to face masks as was directed,” Ndugutse said.

She said that they were working with local suppliers of fabrics to ensure uninterrupted supply.

In regards to the costs and affordability of masks, she said that like other firms, they would be lowering their profit margins to ensure affordability for all Rwandans and residents.

While they are yet to announce the final price, she said that they are working to ensure that products which will be re-usable will be priced as affordably as possible.

Officials from Utexirwa, a textile company said that the firm is aware that their role in the value chain includes production of masks and fabrics for most of the producers noting that they have readjusted their production plant.

They noted that at the moment, they had adequate raw materials with production expected to commence today with between 75 to 100 workers.

 The production they said will seek to produce masks as well as fabric approved for masks to ensure local producers have enough for coming weeks.

Joy Kansangire the Managing Director of Promota Creations Ltd another firm that will be producing the masks said that they currently have the capacity to produce about 7000 masks everyday with plans to upgrade it depending on demand.

Kansangire said that the available equipment and staff is adequate for production and were working out plans for steady supply of raw materials to ensure that they do not halt.

Firms also noted that local production will give life to the local manufacturing sector which has been dormant for weeks due to the lockdown which had since cost the millions of Francs. 

According to the FDA guidelines seen by The New Times, there are different categories of masks approved, falling under the the categories of surgical masks, medical face masks as well as filtering half masks.

The different types of masks have materials made out of cotton, polyester and polypropylene.

Samples were tested against aspects such as bacterial filtration efficiency, breathability, splash resistance, ability to withstand cleaning and disinfectants for reusable masks, total leakage, and compatibility with wearers’ skin among others.

Members of the public are advised that when acquiring a mask they should ensure that it has a width of at least 180 millimetres and a depth of 95 millimetres. 

Other requirements are elastic material to ensure it fits the user.

cmwai@newtimesrwanda.com

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