As the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, global healthcare systems have become overwhelmed. To prevent the spread of the virus, the use of personal protective equipment, gloves, face masks, air-purifying respirators, goggles, ventilators, and gowns become imperative. A critical shortage of all of this has already developed in areas of high demand and is projected to develop in areas of low demand and low infection such as Nigeria. Personal protective equipment formally ubiquitous and disposable in a hospital environment is now a scarce commodity. The Chief Executive Officer of Fashion Spaces Garment Factory (SGFA), Aisha Abubakar-Achonu, whose company manufactures surgical masks, gowns and other medical equipment, fields questions on Nigeria’s preparedness for the pandemic and why the economy has long been dependent on importation and empowering other economies from Adedayo Adejobi
What’s the state of play in the availability of personal protection equipment in Nigeria now?
So we’ve had a couple of demands but distribution has also been a problem. We’ve had people asking us if we can produce for them. Before the lockdown, we did some production that was a social campaign that we distributed for free. But now that there is a lockdown, distribution is going to be a problem for us.
One would think as an essential service provider and manufacturer of medical equipment, you’ll be exempted from the lockdown?
For garment manufacturers, we haven’t received and exemption letter. We actually wrote for it. The association wrote a letter but we haven’t received any response.
Tell us about your company and what sort of medical protective equipment you actually make.
We are a mid-capacity garment factory. We produce personal protective gear like overalls, face masks, and surgical masks. We do not produce the N-95 but we produce the cloth masks and surgical masks because we have supplied for the fabrics that we use in doing that. The textile polypropylene is used to make the surgical mask, and then for the face mask, we have the fabric available.
So, equipment that was once easily available and disposable in Nigeria is now becoming a precious commodity, I imagine that’s the case?
Very much so.
So what sort of orders have you got, as you say you’ve got a couple of orders?
We have some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who have reached out to us, but as I said, the primary constraint is distribution, logistics, and to make sure that our staff are safe. We have to put a safety measure in place. We have a building that is within the factory premises. We have to put in safety measures to make sure that people don’t go out, for instance, to get food. Our staff need to be tested. We have to stay isolated if we are going to be producing these items and also distributing them in a safe manner.
But one would have thought you would be swamped with orders because internationally that’s what’s happening. Beyond the hospitals and government orders, ordinary people are buying face masks and so it’s expected that the government medical facilities are also sticking up on these items as the number of infected people continues to grow every day.
This is a very good question, and it’s very surprising.
The Nigerian textile and garment manufacturers association have been deliberating for the past week. We’ve been wondering why we haven’t been reached out to, considering the fact that the Central Bank of Nigeria, earlier in the year, has signed a memorandum of understanding between us and the para-military for our association to produce personal protective gears for para-military and other organizations that need items as such.
We are surprised that the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) hasn’t reached out to us. We have reached out to them by way of a letter, and we are aware that importation is being done. And we don’t understand why. I have a mid-capacity factory that can produce at least 4,000 clothes and surgical masks a day. We also have textile companies that produce the polypropylene used in producing the surgical masks.
But the government is importing them?
Yes, the government is importing them.
But before the outbreak of coronavirus, were you supplying the government and hospitals? Who were your main clients?
Most of them are imported really, we have very few people that were ordering from us. The whole thrust of the Buhari government is always being to indigenize as much as possible, the manufacturer of things. And they were particularly supportive of manufacturers.
Are you saying they haven’t been buying your products basically?
They haven’t been buying.
Do you know why?
Well, that’s not in my place to answer.
One would think that you’ll want to know why…
I’m not sure, but in terms of technical know-how, we do have that. We have machines and professional expertise.
Are they actually aware of your products?
Yes; to an extent they are because we’ve written several letters introducing some of the things we produce.
And they never followed on that?
Just to be clear, the Central Bank of Nigeria, with that MOU, took a step to make sure that we are patronized. And this is not just for garment or medical supply manufacturers, this is also for the textile companies. We have over 25 functional textile companies and over 35 fully equipped garment factories in the country. If each and every one of us could produce at least 4,000 masks and more, a day, I personally would be able to produce 120,000 masks a month. Imagine the other 35 factories that can save the lives of Nigerians and healthcare workers on the line.
We are seeing improvisations in other parts of the world such as 3D printing in the United States, and inventive people such as yourself, who for instance, turning masks into ventilator masks. And these are being downloaded by hospitals around the world, becoming sort of medical lifeline.
It hasn’t reached that level of emergency in Nigeria, but do you think there may be demand for what you are doing from outside Nigeria?
I think there is a huge demand around the world right now. As we know, this is a pandemic and based on projections it’s not going away anytime soon. As long as these measures are not put in place, Nigeria might be stuck in it for months to come. I call on the Nigerian government to look into this matter. Nigeria has people with the technical know-how on how to produce personal medical protective equipment. We have reached out to them, we just want them to listen. It’s imperative to note that our economy has long been dependent on importation and empowering other economies. This undermines what the Buhari government is trying to do.
With companies making artificial limbs using 3D printing, is that something companies like yours could get together, given that you have some know-how of medical equipment?
We’ve already started working on that. We have a technical team the association has set up and we’ve been deliberating, researching and we have even reached the stage of procuring those machines. But of course, the government would need to support us on this, because they are expensive machines to procure. We are laying the groundwork.