On March 13, 2020, Kenya announced it’s first case of Coronavirus (Covid-19) sending panic to citizens who hoped the pandemic would not hit most African countries.
At this point, several countries in the world were reeling from the effects of Covid-19, including the developed world. This meant that Kenya, which relies heavily on imported medical equipment could not get much help from the developed world such as China.
Some of the most needed equipment included face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) for medics who were to handle Covid-19 patients.
Chinese billionaire Jack Ma donated some of the equipment to African countries, including six million masks.
Kenya alone needed 15 million masks, according to the Ministry of Health, hence Jack Ma’s masks looked like a drop in the ocean for African countries, which have an estimated population of 1.2 billion.
Most of Kenya’s textile industries in Kenya were closing as the export industry was on its knees.
Kenya had to look elsewhere, especially for masks that would be needed by a bigger part of the population to fight Covid-19.
The virus was not choosing, with the high and might being among the first to feel the pinch. Kitui governor Charity Ngilu was among the leaders who felt the pinch, as her daughter and son-in-law were among the first 10 cases, after returning from a trip to Spain.
No hope was there from foreign countries, so she decided to chip in and convert Kitui County Textile Centre (KICOTEC) to a face mask and PPE manufacturer.
“Let’s not wait and wonder. We import everything and produce nothing, despite having all the resources at our disposal,” said Ngilu, who was once the Minister for Health during former President Mwai Kibaki’s reign.
It took less than a week for the county to train the more than 400 workers in the factory, and within no time the factory was producing more than 30,000 masks a day, cushioning the shortage in the country.
A part from helping the country in it’s greatest hour of need, Kicotec is now helping hundreds of families whose breadwinners work in the company to earn a living.
“The only jobs we have in this country anymore are in warehouses and shops, distributing Chinese goods. This is why we remain poor and underprepared for shocks, like a pandemic,” says Ngilu.
Most of its workers are locals who do not have sufficient education, earning an average of Ksh20,000. 80 percent of the workers are women coming from poverty-stricken areas of Kitui County.
“It was a lot of challenge to bring them from the village to where they are today. But they are all experts now. They could each run their own factory, if you ask me,” said Mbuvi Mbathi, the factory manager.
The company works 24 hours a day in three shifts of eight hours each, making it one of the few companies working for 24 hours.
During the period of this pandemic, the workers do dot commute home, but instead spend in a dormitory of a vocational school next door that is closed because of the outbreak.
“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. That makes my hours here worth it,” said Hellen Mawia, 35, a mother of four as quoted by the Washington Post.
Previously, the factory majorly focused on sewing school uniforms, government uniforms and other kinds of apparels used locally.
The county government envisaged the factory will reduce the cost of garments especially uniforms and ensure that students stay in school and parents retain money to put to other needs.
According to Ngilu, an average of 486,000 students in both primary and secondary schools in the county will save over Ksh2.43 billion annually.
Last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed that uniforms for government officers be manufactured at the county textile centre.