Okey Sampson, Umuahia
Aba, the commercial nerve centre of Abia State, wears many aliases. Some call it Enyimba City (City of Elephants), others refer to it as Japan of Africa.
The city is dressed in such admirable robes because of the vibrancy and uncommon ability of artisans in the city to masterfully fabricate or put together anything under the sun, except human beings. This has made Aba stand poles apart from other commercial cities. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo acknowledged the prowess of Abia while on a working visit there not long ago.
Despite such challenges as infrastructural deficiency, particularly power and roads, Aba has refused to bow.
With the advent of coronavirus, another opportunity appeared for Aba to show the stuff it is made of. Apart from the lockdown of cities and, in some instances, countries, to curtail the pandemic, health professionals and scientists advocated among other personal protection equipment (PPE), the wearing of face masks in public places. This somewhat brought succour to a rather hapless society.
However, the pleasures of the PPEs recommendation were quickly eclipsed by the disturbing scarcity of face masks, which, before now, hardly found their way outside the walls of health facilities. As it were, demand greatly overwhelmed supply. In Nigeria, Aba, precisely, which had before now depended solely on foreign face masks, it was easier getting a lion’s meat than purchasing one face mask. Where it was seen, the cost went as high as N1,000 or more and people groaned. The situation was that bad.
Rising to the occasion, Aba people brought their ingenuity to bear. As often said, just present the prototype of anything you want and then go to bed and await a perfect copy. This is exactly what has happened this time.
COVID-19 threw a face mask challenge of sorts of and Aba companies and tailors rose to the occasion to the point that a single face mask, which sold for over N1,000, could today be bought with N50 in Aba.
When the face masks were nowhere to be found in Aba, some tailors and companies went into massive production and, today, the face masks are not only available, but affordable. How was this achieved? One of the tailors involved in the production of the face masks, Orji Egwu, said: “The idea of producing the face masks came to me when the coronavirus started and Abia State government announced that those who could produce them should do so to meet the rising demand since foreign ones were nowhere to be found.”
Egwu, who runs Okosisi Tailors in Ogbor Hill, lamented that his problem was how to market the face masks he produced. “I learnt that the state government is buying up the face masks produced locally, but I don’t know who will link me with the COVID-19 implementation committee,” he said.
Another tailor, who gave his name as Kalu, and operates within the Ngwa Road area, said he produces over 1,000 face masks daily and, like Egwu, lamented low patronage: “When I started the production of the face masks as a result of the clarion call by the state government, I was selling one for N100 because business was moving then, but because of low patronage now, I reduced the price to N50 and the sales are now a bit encouraging,” he said.
Kalu has high hopes that as the government has made wearing of face masks in public compulsory, he would have a booming business. Like Egwu, he was yet to be approached by any government official for the bulk purchase of his products.
If Egwu and Kalu, among others, who could be referred to as ‘ordinary tailors’ have problems marketing their products, it’s not so for LDL limited, also in Aba. With state-of-the-art equipment, the company produces face masks that have attracted corporate organisations and state governments even outside Abia. Mrs. Princess Okojie, production manager of the company, said: “We have a lot of contracts from governments and individuals both within and outside the state to produce face masks. The last contract we delivered was for Abia State Government; we produced over 15,000 packets of face masks, which we have also delivered. A packet contains 100 pieces.
“Other contracts we procured from outside and within the state are in the process. Presently, we are in talks to deliver some face masks to Ebonyi State government because we’ve delivered over 1,000 already to them and from the feelers we are getting, they are likely to place more orders.”
The owner of a medium-sized designing firm, Mrs. Blessing Nze, said: “We were into the production of school uniforms, jerseys and other stuff like that, but when this pandemic came, due to the scarcity of face masks in Abia, and coupled with government’s call, we decided to go into its production and the sales are not all that encouraging now.”
She, however, expressed hope of better sales, if the state government begins strict implementation of its directive that everybody should wear face mask in public places.
The question is whether the local producers of face masks in Aba have the wherewithal to produce enough to go round and at the same time meet international standard. Mrs. Okojie provides the answer: “It depends on the order placed. But, under normal circumstances, and judging from our workforce and the machines we have, we can produce over 40,000 packets of 100 each, daily. We have three batches of workforce in a day and each batch has target of the number of face masks to produce.”
On the quality of their products, Okojie said: “There are many local and imported face masks, but I believe ours is superior because we pass them through many processes, which I’m not sure the foreign ones go through.
“After the production of the face masks, we pass them through a sterilization process, using the UV light ray to sterilize them so they will be devoid of all forms of bacteria or harmful substances so that they will be suitable for human use and I believe that is the edge we have over the other ones you can find in the market. I have seen many imported face masks, they are disposable, but our own is reusable; you can use it, wash, iron and reuse it for as long as one month and I think that is a very huge edge. So, if you are purchasing one, I bet you, you can use it for more than a month or how long you want to use it, its long-lasting, its durable and that’s why ours has edge over the others in the market. The other ones are just one-time-use face mask.”
Egwu and other producers of face masks in Aba toe the same line with Okojie on why their face masks compare with foreign ones or are even better. While she said her company uses polyester materials, also known as jersey materials, to produce their face masks, Egwu said they use pure cotton cloth materials that could allow one to breathe freely and another soft material that serves as the inner layer to produce the face mask.
“We use cotton materials and nylon materials also. The outer cloth stops any human fluid in the air from entering the nose or mouth of the person putting on the face mask while the inner material filters the air and prevents dust from coming in contact with the nose or mouth of an individual.”
Germ-free face masks
To ensure the locally produced face masks are safe for human use, the producers go through certain processes to make them germ-free. According to Kalu, “After producing the face masks, we don’t just start selling them like that. We try to make them safe by washing and sterilizing them to make sure they are germ-free before sending them across to the public.”
Okojie also said: “The face masks we produce are germ-free because, whatever came with the material must have been gotten rid of through that process of sterilization. So, continuous use will not pose any health problem because they have been sterilized.
“They are washable and after washing, you can iron them, that is where the difference comes and we are proud of that uniqueness.”
Despite the uniqueness and durability of the locally produced face masks, they are also cheap and affordable. The highest quality of the face masks produced locally go for N200, while those seen to be lower in quality could be bought for as little as N50. Okojie threw more light on this: “Ours is not the ordinary face mask you know; our own has some technical touches in its production. There is technicality in the production of our own face masks; the ones in the market are one layer face masks, but ours are two-layered and they have bias all over it with elastic standard quality. Notwithstanding the technical input that make them unique, they are also cheap. We sale them at N200 per face mask. Despite the fact that many people are in dire need of face masks now, we didn’t want to hike the price, we want to make them cheap, affordable.”
Mrs. Nze said her firm produces and sterilizes the face masks to remove any germs before selling to the public.
“We produce, sterilize and send out to people that placed orders. At times, we accept face masks from other local producers in the city and sterilize for them. We have the machines for making the face masks and the ones for sterilizing them,” she said.
Aba residents, they say, like cheap things. Therefore, the locally produced face masks provide a sort of lifeline at a time of near hopelessness. As the state government has made wearing of face masks in public compulsory, residents are happy that, with just N50, they could afford one. No wonder people wear all sorts of face masks along the streets making them in most cases look like masquerades.
Ogechi, a resident, spoke her mind: “I am happy the price of face mask has come down. Initially, when they were sold above N500, some of us could not afford them, but now I can use N50 to buy one and will use it more than once. Thanks to the local producers.”
Many other people agree with Ogechi, giving kudos to local producers for making face masks available and affordable.
The state government, though not giving the local producers any fund, is encouraging them by way of buying the ones produced and distributing them to government agencies. The Abia State commissioner for information, Chief John Okiyi-Kalu, said government was proud of the local producers of face masks.
“We are proud of what they are doing and we encourage them and buy off what most of them produce and distribute to government agencies. At present, we are in talks with a Federal Government agency on how some of these local producers will supply them made-in-Aba face masks.”
He advised people to always wear the face mask when they are leaving their houses to reduce the rate of the COVID-19 spread.
Fake face masks dangerous
However, a medical practitioner, Prof. Philip Njemanze, has warned that those buying face mask should be careful about the quality.
Njemanze, medical director, Chidicom Medical Centre, Owerri, Imo State, said: “A substandard mask will allow aerosol, though almost all face masks will prevent droplets. If I cough, the droplets coming out will be stopped by a face mask but a substandard one will allow the aerosol and virus can be in the aerosol. If another person that is there also coughs, and the person had an infection, when I am breathing even with the face mask on I will still be passing in the virus. Really, we should not allow people to use the wrong face mask and the way to test is very simple. If you light a candle, try blowing through it to quench a candle. If you blow, the candle will go off. But if you are wearing a real face mask and blow it to quench the candle, it will never go off because it doesn’t pass air. The way the fibres are, too tiny, and they are arranged in a crossing section. So, almost all spaces are filled. Air particles can still pass; aerosol can’t pass. These ones the tailors are making are not useful, to be frank with you. Some people tie handkerchief around their nose; it is also not useful in preventing the virus. There are two things anybody may want to achieve. One, psychological hysteria will go down a little bit. The issue of nothing being done will be overcome. Two, you are preventing droplets from coming out. That will prevent not just COVID but, more importantly, tuberculosis. COVID is not really so much in the droplet because it is a virus, only a small particle will come out. Bacteria is much more larger than a virus. But what actually prevents the disease and what is flattening the curve, according to Americans, is the weather; it’s the humidity.
“I want to say it again. The problem is that the WHO is giving wrong guidance for developing countries. Recommending a lockdown is inimical; it is actually helping the diseases to spread in developing countries, especially in Africa because the average household in Nigeria are six; the average household in America and Europe are three. So, when you say people should stay at home in Europe and America, they have an average of three rooms in their house, everybody can afford one room. But when you say Nigerians should stay at home, you are putting six people and relatives in one room. You are clustering people together. And if they have one small television set, the entire neighbourhood will troop into their room because they are the people who have generator. So, they are actually spreading the disease. That’s why we are anxious about lifting the lockdown. It is spreading the disease in Africa. It just doesn’t make sense.”