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 novel 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.
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 engineering duo are 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.
“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 embroidered sets of place mats and napkins, but now all their efforts are focused on surgical masks that match the high industry standards for N95 respirators. They were retrained in just a week.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Rael Ombuor contributed to this report.