Covid-19/ Success in Action

Artisans on the Front Lines: PPE Production in Kenya

A group of artisans in Kenya transitioned to producing masks to protect their community.

Photo credit: SHOFCO/Sirdart

Personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks, is one of the most effective tools available to fight the spread of COVID-19. But global shortages have meant that sufficient PPE has been unavailable for many health care workers, who are at increased risk of COVID-19 transmission.

In Kenya, which confirmed its first case of coronavirus in March 2020, the impact of measures to control COVID-19, including travel restrictions, curfews and lockdowns, quickly became apparent. Almost 80% of Kenyans reported a decrease in income this year according to a recent report, making it difficult to pay for groceries and rent or find other work, as many businesses were closed. At-risk populations were particularly affected, including single mothers and HIV-positive women. Although the government announced a stimulus package to ease the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, more help was needed.

At a time when so many people are out of work, jobs that focus on the production of PPE, such as face masks, can be a lifeline, while at the same time helping health care workers and the communities they serve.

Building an opportunity for those at risk

Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, partnered with the Artisan Alliance at the Aspen Institute, which provides resources for those in the global artisan sector, the Western Union Foundation and the United States African Development Foundation to launch the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the Africa Fund and Coalition. This fund currently provides grants to small artisan businesses to produce PPE locally for their communities. It also employs local artisans to prepare and respond to the COVID-19 emergency in Africa by training them to produce PPE and pivot their business to meet local needs in a pandemic.

With support from the fund, Kenya-based non-profit Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) has begun producing masks for ICAP’s Community Health Worker Trainees in Kenya, a group of Kenyan frontline health care workers learning to effectively identify and care for COVID-19 cases.

SHOFCO has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis since March, when they began transitioning their Women’s Empowerment Program (SWEP), which had focused on making uniforms, lab coats and other articles of protective clothing, to producing surgical masks. Currently, their PPE production project includes 100 SWEP tailors in the Kibera and Mathare slums in Nairobi. As of December 2020, the program has produced and distributed 60,000 surgical masks to health care workers.

The Artisan Alliance also supports the production with quality monitoring through third-party certifiers, in accordance with Africa CDC guidelines.

Taking a multi-tier response to fighting COVID-19

Beyond protecting Kenyan health care workers, this project benefits many of those at risk from economic restrictions due to the COVID-19 crisis. SHOFCO focuses on employing Kenyans most at risk, such as people living in slums, youth, single mothers, and women who are HIV-positive.

“I used to work in a hotel before coronavirus came and destroyed everything. It was closed. I did not have a job and struggled for a month. I joined SWEP in March after losing my job,” said Evelyne Achieng, a single mother who is employed by SHOFCO. “I work here in order to provide for myself and my child. I pay all my bills from the money I make here.”

The organization also provides professional development services for the artisans, including training in job skills and computer literacy. Additionally, there is a savings account where members can contribute part of their monthly earnings into a shared employee pool for future use. “We save the money in a bank account and we hope to withdraw the money and share in the future. At that time, every one of us will have enough money to do something useful for their lives,” said Ms. Achieng.

The program is a win-win for both its employees and community health care workers. Not only are workers getting a steady income and job training, but local health care workers can use essential PPE to continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya. Many workers also benefit from knowing that they are helping to fight the pandemic. “I am happy because other than getting money, I also know I am helping people in the community and staff at the SHOFCO clinic to protect themselves with the masks and PPE we are making,” said Ann Achieng, another employee of SWEP.

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