The relocation of production in the factory reflects the urgent need for even the most basic protective equipment. Like Kenya, most African countries have little experience in the manufacture of medical products and instead rely on imports from China and foreign aid.
However, as the corona virus continues to spread across the continent, African governments are facing stiff competition from highly industrialized economies when it comes to offering masks and other equipment. Some rely almost entirely on donations from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, who has shipped 6 million masks to Africa, in addition to a large number of gloves, swabs, protective suits and even 500 Fans. Kenya alone needs 15 million masks.
African countries are not the only ones struggling to provide enough masks for their health workers, and Africa is not the only place where millions of them are received from China. While wealthier countries rely on huge companies to fill the supply gap, other more modest means are turning to it.
In Mexico, for example, hundreds of small companies are switching to mask production – as are prisoners working on mask assembly lines. And in the Palestinian Territories, a shoe factory has switched to masks, and an engineering duo even make their own ventilators.
In this small county 100 miles east of Nairobi, the governor decided last month that she was tired of waiting for imports or donations from China. She knew how quickly the coronavirus could spread: 15 years ago, not only was Kenya’s health minister, her daughter and son-in-law became two of the first 10 confirmed cases in Kenya after returning from a trip to Spain.
“Let’s not wait and wonder,” said Charity Ngilu, who was sitting at a reasonable social distance at the end of a long conference table in her governor’s office in Kitui. “We import everything and produce nothing, even though we have all the resources.”
Kenya has fewer than 200 confirmed cases of coronavirus and only one in Kitui County. But the county produces up to 30,000 masks a day and sells them to private and public hospitals across the country who are desperately looking for them.
Almost 400 staplers work in the factory, and 80 percent are women, most of whom have never received formal training. They used to make all kinds of uniforms and even embroidered sets of placemats and napkins. Now, their efforts are focused on surgical masks that meet the high industry standards for N95 respirators. They were retrained in just a week.
“It was a huge challenge to get them from the village to where they are today,” said Mbuvi Mbathi, the factory manager. “But now they’re all experts. You could each run your own factory if you ask me. “
They are divided into three teams that work in eight-hour shifts, which means that production runs day and night and keeps them apart. Instead of commuting, each shift sleeps and eats together in a dormitory next to a vocational school that is closed due to the outbreak. They get less than $ 200 a month, but some say they think the payment is good for Kitui County, one of the poorest areas of Kenya.
“We had to stop what we were doing here to support the country,” said one of the workers, Celina Mutiso, 32. “We should always be there for each other.” This is what this disease taught us. That you cannot exist alone. You need others. “
The factory hall pulsates with the roar of sewing machines and is littered with piles of stitches, cords and wires that make up the masks. A large whiteboard has the hourly goal for each group of workers: 1,250.
Ngilu’s demand for domestic production instead of dependence on China is somewhat watered down by the fact that the raw material of the network that makes up most of the mask – known as PVC pellets – is imported from China. So far, PVC pellets are much easier to find on the open market than masks themselves.
“The only jobs we have more in this country are warehouses and stores that sell Chinese goods,” said Ngilu. “That is why we remain poor and unprepared for shocks like a pandemic.”
Ngilu plans to build two more factories as soon as possible, perhaps with money the county collects from the sale of the masks. It also wants to train people across the country to make simpler fabric-based masks that can be reused, as opposed to single-use surgical masks.
As in most developing countries, the vast majority of jobs in Kenya are “informal”, which means that they are neither taxed nor committed to any kind of worker protection. After Kenya put a curfew from dawn to dawn and severe restrictions on movement across the country, many in the informal sector have lost their jobs.
Ngilu said they should learn to make masks given the likelihood that the coronavirus will continue to spread in Kenya in the coming weeks. This could reduce the likelihood of social unrest due to unemployment and at the same time create something that Kenya desperately needs – or maybe enough for export to other African countries.
Factory workers say they would give the work an enthusiastic rating, at least compared to sewing garden pants.
“We’re not just making clothes for people now, we’re helping millions of Kenyans get something very important they need at the time,” said Hellen Mawia, 35, mother of four. “That makes my hours here worthwhile.”
Rael Ombuor contributed to this report.