As Apparel Orders Drop, One Manufacturer in Africa Turns to PPE

May 17, 2020

By Devon Maylie

When orders for shirts, trousers, skirts, and dresses suddenly dried up from buyers in the United States and Europe because coronavirus was keeping people indoors, manufacturer Hela Clothing didn’t panic. Instead, it put its skilled staff to work stitching personal protective equipment (PPE).

“This crisis has highlighted that many countries in Africa and other parts of the world don’t have their own medical PPE production. We’re all very dependent on China and a few other countries,” said Adam Collins, Group Economist and Special Projects Lead for Sri Lanka-based Hela Clothing.

Hela swiftly retooled several of its factories, including one in Kenya that had been producing men’s underwear, and sourced new materials to help meet surging demand for PPE from hospitals and other essential industries in Africa facing COVID-19.

Hela produced 10 million face masks in Kenya during April and May alone. About 90 percent of them were standard, three-ply surgical masks, while the rest were reusable fabric masks. The company’s Kenya operation is also acquiring the special machinery needed to produce more sophisticated N95 respirator masks, which filter out most airborne particles.

“In Africa, it’s a move that will meet critical demand where there is currently very limited production of the medical grade N95 masks and one that opens a new line of business in the longer term for us,” said Collins.

World Health Organization estimates that 89 million medical masks will be required every month to fight COVID-19, which requires a 40 percent increase in the existing manufacturing capacity. Current global production of face masks today covers less than a quarter of the estimated demand, according to the WHO.

Hela’s Kenya operation is now helping meet this unprecedented demand—but it can’t do it alone. Many other manufacturers are also rushing to repurpose idle machines to address global shortages of PPEs. IFC is helping them do it by hosting learning webinars with health, textile and machinery experts, as well as by providing linkages to potential buyers and suppliers.

New Knowledge, New Business

For Hela, the shift to producing PPE, which is helping to keep its 15,000 employees worldwide working, might evolve into a longer-term strategy, especially at its Kenyan operation.

“A lot of work went into acquiring additional technical knowledge to do this,” Collins said. “And we view this as an opportunity to create a permanent additional pillar for our business, beyond traditional apparel products.”

Hela will sell its N95 masks to hospitals across Africa, where the number of coronavirus cases had grown to 63,119 by mid-May. To help ensure long-term demand for its N95 production in Africa, Hela is also forming a joint venture with a company that operates hospitals across the continent.

IFC supported Hela to reinvent itself as a PPE producer by working with the company to source sewing patterns for surgical masks and by introducing it to manufacturers of nonwoven materials necessary to produce medical masks. IFC is also introducing other prospective buyers of the masks to Hela, which is a member of IFC’s Global Trade-Supplier Finance program.

“When supply chains are disrupted, it shows how critical it is to support regional production. By increasing capacity in Africa, companies can deploy masks and other medical wear quicker to where they’re needed,” said Mary-Jean Moyo, IFC’s Regional Industry Director for Manufacturing, Agribusiness and Services in the Middle East and Africa.

Hela’s Kenya facility is expecting a delivery in June of a special machine to produce N95 masks. However, while the machine can travel, technicians to train staff cannot.

The solution for Hela’s team on the ground—a solution many businesses are embracing in this time of social distancing—is to watch training tutorials online, with the machine manufacturer providing on-call technicians for virtual support during the initial setup.

The biggest challenge Hela has faced? Sourcing the raw materials needed for certified PPE, which have in some cases quadrupled in price. Unprecedented demand has made it difficult finding reliable suppliers of specialized medical grade fabrics, though Hela is working to build long-term relationships with partners in Egypt and Turkey with IFC’s help.

“Strengthening local supply chains is key to making products manufactured in Africa globally competitive because it helps to reduce costs and delivery times,” Collins said. “In the case of medical PPE, it means that manufacturers like Hela can be more resilient to potential disruptions elsewhere in the world and it will improve the region’s ability to face future healthcare challenges.”

Published May 2020