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Face masks from SA to the world

Jordean Eksteen’s cellphone will not stop ringing. The latest call comes from Italy, which has been placed under quarantine following the outbreak of Covid-19 in that country, which is struggling to stop its rapidly rising death toll.

“It has been a crazy two months,” says Eksteen as he puts his phone back on silent mode.

Eksteen (32) is the co-owner and co-founder of face mask factory U-Mask. He and his business partner had directed their focus on making protective masks for mining and agricultural companies. But this changed two months ago, when orders for their equivalent of the N95 respirator mask (used by medical professionals to protect themselves from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face) increased exponentially. The company has seen demand for the mask grow by more than 15% as people seek to protect themselves from contracting Covid-19.  

Last month, the company donated 30000 face masks to China in a bid to help the Asian country stop the spread of the virus. The achievement is proudly displayed on a red banner that hangs at the entrance of U-Mask’s headquarters in Centurion.

Eksteen says the donation was made to help that country contain the virus before it spread further, “because if a country like China struggles to contain it, then we have an even slimmer chance of doing so”.

The U-Mask factory is one of the smallest warehouse buildings at Icon Industrial Park, situated north of Johannesburg: it covers an area measuring just 800m2. Yet within this small space, the factory has been able to produce an additional two-million face masks since January.

Workers responsible for assembling the masks are made to wear personal protective gear, including a mask, a full bodysuit covering their clothes, and hair and shoe nets.

The soundproof assembly area is the factory’s nerve centre. The only way to catch a glimpse of the machines used in the production process is through a small window on the side of the secluded area. 

Boxes filled with masks surround the product-assembly area, waiting to be shipped to their destination. The company is now operating its production lines all day, every day. Eksteen says that as soon as workers have completed an order, it is immediately shipped out.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the company has employed an additional 30 workers to ease the load on its 80-strong staff. Over the next six months, U-Mask plans to employ 50 more people. To cope with the increase in demand, it has introduced alternate eight-hourly shifts, with staff working a four-day week. This way, they are offered flexibility and a work-life balance. Employees are also given the option of working overtime shifts. Their temperatures are checked at the start and end of each shift to ensure that they are healthy enough to work on the masks.

But, as Covid-19 continues to spread, having surpassed the 110000 mark for infections worldwide, there has been a great deal of public debate about whether wearing a mask is beneficial. According to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the United States’s top public health official, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, wearing a mask to protect oneself against the virus is unnecessary. Both warn that wearing the mask incorrectly can also lead to infection.

Regardless of these warnings, there have been reports of face masks selling out in pharmacies in South Korea and the US, with some healthcare facilities finding it hard to procure the protective wear for their staff. 

Earlier this month, as Covid-19 continued to spread, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), urged manufacturers to boost their mask production. Since the outbreak of the disease, the WHO says, costs of surgical masks have surged and the price of N95 respirators has trebled.

The UN body estimates that 89-million medical masks are required monthly in response to Covid-19. The number is expected to increase as more infections are reported. This, it says, will have a problematic knock-on effect: “Supplies can take months to deliver and market manipulation is widespread, with stocks frequently being sold to the highest bidder.”

U-Mask has been a beneficiary of this increase in demand for the surgical masks. It has partnered with more than 10 distributors, located as far afield as Africa, Australia, China, Europe and South America, to move its sought-after product.

At one point, Eksteen says, the company had to decline orders from German luxury vehicle manufacturer BMW and cellphone manufacturers in South Korea, which requested bulk orders for their staff. 

Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian

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Thando Maeko
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian

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