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Updated Apr 10, 2020

A clothing factory in Kitui County, Kenya, was transformed into a surgical mask producer practically overnight, and now makes up to 30,000 surgical masks per day. The governor of Kitui, Charity Ngilu, said the decision to authorize the factory conversion emerged from a desire to not sit around and wait on foreign donations of medical supplies. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has made several donations worldwide, including sending 6 million masks, 500 ventilators, swabs, protective clothing, and gloves for use across Africa. This is not nearly enough, however: Kenya alone expects it would require 15 million masks to manage COVID-19. As of April 10, fewer than 200 known cases of infection had been reported in Kenya, and only one in Kitui.

Nearly 400 seamstresses work in the factory, many of whom have no formal education. Training them to make the masks took just one week. Ngilu’s desire for Kenya to become more self-sufficient is somewhat undercut by the fact that one of the raw materials used to make the masks, PVC pellets, is imported from China. It is, however, much easier to acquire PVC pellets than masks on the open market, so it’s a worthwhile effort. 

Millions of Africans depend on employment in the informal sector to make ends meet. With the imposition of curfews and closure of public spaces, these informal laborers now struggle with the reality of not being able to earn an income. Training and employing more workers to provide vitally needed equipment addresses several concerns at once. Gabon implemented a similar plan to produce hand sanitizers in a drug-manufacturing plant. Other African countries can follow Kenya and Gabon’s example to provide in their own need for vital equipment, and not wait on foreign aid.

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