The Response to Kenya Fashion Council’s Call for Masks - A Prime Example of Community Spirit
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has been exposed to an unprecedented struggle to not only stay healthy, but to keep businesses alive and moving forward in the throes of an imminent economic crisis. Most companies and small businesses have had to close their doors to the public for the unforeseeable future and, while big conglomerates have the means and infrastructure to withstand these sudden changes, many small businesses are starting to go under. The creative sector, particularly within the small-scale fashion and textile industry, has been hit hard and many have stopped production altogether. However, the desperate need for protective gear has presented an opportunity for small and big creative production facilities to completely reroute their businesses in support of their communities through the creation of face masks. Not only has this allowed them to remain in business and even create new employment opportunities, they are also able to pay it forward by responding to the current shortage in face masks.
On March 30th, the Kenya Fashion Council (KFCO) put out an appeal on social media, requesting local textile and apparel businesses to collaborate in the making of gear for medical staff and the public. Within 24 hours, KFCO received more than 800 emails from individuals and businesses offering their help. We spoke to Akinyi Odongo, Creative Director and Designer at Akinyi Odongo Kenya (TM) and founder of MEFA Institute of Design, who is currently the Executive Board Chair of KFCO.
“There was a call out by the government to know the production capacity of businesses in regard to PPEs. Indeed, we looked at this as an opportunity for SMEs to also be part of this. We quickly sent out a flyer to be shared on social media and we received over 800 emails in less than a day. By the following day, they were totaling to 1520 emails,” Akinyi told Fashionomics Africa. “This was unexpected to us and illustrated our resilience and support for each other as a country. It quickly became evident that all sizes of businesses are willing to be part of a solution to ‘flatten the curve’, in preparation to produce all the PPEs that will be required when need arises. We now have the capacity details ready and can share these opportunities with our members.”
Since then, more and more individuals and businesses have come forward and KFCO is currently hard at work putting new systems in place to further engage the government on how to fill in the gaps. “We are now streamlining our records and sharing all the information needed to enable them to do some work and earn a living in this difficult time. We have been able to update them on the current happenings and have been guiding them where necessary by getting the right information. They have also been able to engage with each other on the social media platforms we created. It’s amazing to see people support each other by sharing critical information and celebrating each other’s wins.”
The board members are working day and night, coming up with better solutions to the current problems. Several volunteers have also stepped in to help in different capacities, and KFCO is keeping entrepreneurs up to date with all the guidelines. “We are currently focusing on making sure that designers and tailors produce quality non-medical masks for public use since there is a directive by the president that every person should wear a mask to protect others. We have also received approximately 40 meters of fabric that was donated by small businesses as part of their contribution. This fabric was distributed to two designers who are producing masks to hand out for free in the Kibera and Kawangware slums. We have also sent some meters of fabric to a tailor in western Kenya who is doing masks for free for Boda Boda riders. To us this is huge since it shows the commitment of small businesses to contribute in whatever small way they can.”
The workers’ well-being is the top priority and special measures are taken to ensure everyone’s safety. “Many people are working from home and businesses that are still open regulate their employees and work in shifts to avoid crowding. Regular hand washing and hand sanitizers are now the reality of everyday business. All employees are now wearing masks. We have partnered with a sterilization lab to ensure our masks are sterilized and individually packed to avoid contamination. We hope to have masks available for sale on the Jumia platform for online buyers and supermarkets too. We also ensure the employees leave work early to enable them to get home in good time before curfew,” Akinyi explains. A campaign encouraging the wearing of masks is already running under the slogan, “umewai mask yako?” which translates into “got your mask?”
“This is Sheng and slang used by the young people. We felt that since they are the majority of our population, we needed our message to reach as many of them as possible so they may help pass on the message. Our campaigns are in three languages; English, Kiswahili and Sheng but we chose to start with the latter to hopefully get the message disseminated quicker. We have already done the pattern for the two type of masks that we would like them to use so that there is uniformity and quality is maintained. We have a manual that has already been shared with the public on guidelines for making non-medical masks. In the meantime, we are continuously on the look-out for any information on designers, tailors and volunteers to keep going. We are also continuously sourcing needs and possible orders too and sharing these opportunities. Right now, we are open to any help we can get to make the lives of designers and tailors easier.”
As for the approach to the question of affordability, Akinyi assured us that the focus is on sustainability. “This is a good question and it also depends on what one understands by affordability. We are advocating for two cotton layered masks dubbed the KE-2 masks. These are reusable cloth masks and therefore save on cost. We are looking at sustainability in this regard. So, compared to a mask that is disposable we think we will also be saving our environment by not littering because I can only imagine how much damage will be caused to the environment by not rightly disposing of the polypropylene masks. Our position remains that surgical masks should be saved for those in the frontline and taking care of patients since there’s limited supply of the same. The general public should stick to the two layered fabric KE-2 Mask that will enable them to contain the droplets and lessen transmission rates.”
The response to the KFCO’s call for designers and tailors is proof of a strong community spirit that is currently creating a network gearing itself up to support a noble cause that could potentially save lives and incomes. It’s what Fashionomics Africa has been saying all along – the fashion community really does have the power to create change. If you would like to support KFCO or would like more information on where to purchase your own mask, follow them on Instagram for the latest updates.