How the trade in masks, sanitisers rose and fell in the blink of an eye

Workers at the Shona Garments factory situated at Export Processing Zone in Athi River, make face masks ordered by the government following the covid19 outbreak. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

No one really shows the dynamism, adaptability and resilience of the city and its dwellers like a hawker on Nairobi’s streets.

In the scorching sun, the hawker will be aggressively persuading people to buy cold water. Or mobile phone airtime and a toy for the children.

Switch the sky with rain and they will immediately surround you with umbrellas. Never mind that they will rarely cover themselves with any of these. Eyes on the money.

It is sheer hard work and responsiveness that these hawkers have to practice while braving the never-ending cat and mouse games with city askaris.

Yesterday marked exactly two years since that dreaded announcement was made—that the highly infectious killer Coronavirus was now in Kenya.

It is a virus that changed lives, perhaps forever, and to many for the worse. To some, it killed twice: took away their jobs and their loved ones.

But the city hawker adapted to sell the goods the new world was demanding: masks, hand sanitisers and thermoguns.

As long as the infectious virus was spreading and the curve was heading upwards, cottage industries for masks kept popping up.

This was much in line with the government’s plea to local manufacturers to rise to the occasion and plug the shortage of the life-saving commodity.

Mask-making enterprises quickly became part of the success stories of the pandemic, supplying to hawkers to sell at convenient places.

That was until Friday afternoon when Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe— the very man who on March 12, 2020, instantly created the market for masks—destroyed the trade.

“The mandatory wearing of masks in open public places is now lifted,” Kagwe announced.

The reason, he explained, is that Kenya’s Covid-19 positivity rate has remained below five per cent over the last few months.

In other words, Kenya has managed to significantly flatten the curve of the infectious virus, thanks to vaccination, mask-wearing and social distancing.

That is good news. The bad news, however, is that the announcement has instantly flattened the sales curve for masks, sanitisers and thermoguns.

Face masks, a must-have and once hard-to-come-by accessory at the beginning of the pandemic has been rendered out of style.

Its sales may now dissipate to almost nothing. This is despite the Health ministry advising that those holding indoor gatherings should consider wearing them.

Thousands of small manufacturers that rushed to produce masks may now remain stuck with millions of unsold stock.

For many hawkers, the announcement caught them flat-footed, leaving them stranded with stocks of masks.

“I expected this day to come. But not today,” said Mary Musau, a vendor who has been selling masks at Embakasi.

Photographers from The Standard who conducted spot checks on Nairobi streets immediately after the announcement noticed that nearly every person on the streets had pulled off their mask.

Hawkers will have to find something else to sell, and they surely will. But first, they must quickly nurse the wounds of the dead stock.

For cottage industries that struck gold in making and selling masks in bulk, they too are going to feel the meltdown.

But it is a small price to pay compared to that of the 5,641 people who died due to Covid-19 and are now a statistic in the government’s records.

Kenya had one of the strictest mask-wearing policies in the world, with everyone required to wear one in public places or serve six months in prison.

Prices averaged between Sh50 and Sh100 a piece at the start of the pandemic due to limited supply and hoarding by some buyers. Selling masks became a flourishing venture, especially with police rounding up those without it and forcing them to clean streets.

Institutions such as the Kitui County Textile Centre (Kicotec) soon became the face of resilience and Kenya’s spirit of innovation by switching to mask production.

The Kitui firm was making up to 30,000 masks daily to plug the rising demand. In May 2020, for instance, it bagged a Sh100 million tender to supply Kenya Power with one million three-ply surgical masks at Sh100 each.

Kicotec will be joined by other firms including Kenya Medical Supplies Authority, Y&M Solutions and BKP Products in feeling the heat over the declining market for masks and infra-red thermometers.

By June 2020, three months after the first Covid-19 case, the Ministry of Industrialisation had approved 113 companies as manufacturers of personal protective gear including masks.

Some of the approved manufacturers for face masks were Discount Ventures, Paragon Signs & Advertising, Envira Industries, Kega Fashions, Eco Lab, Dala Textiles, Craft With Meaning and Maridadi Stitches.

So lucrative was the market that Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) had to come up with local specifications for making masks to ensure quality.

“The use of substandard medical masks, or even misuse of the masks, is highly risky because it gives a false sense of protection, thereby increasing the risk of exposure,” Kebs warned.

It soon became a race for pandemic money as much as it was a race to flatten the Covid-19 curve. The virus and economic shutdown were equally shunned.

For small shops selling consumables such as cooking oil, soft drinks and bites, masks and hand sanitisers had become must-stock items. But the prices started softening as local firms joined the production bandwagon, with some making the masks from cloth.

Tailors, traditionally making money from making and repairing clothes, awed buyers with cloth masks that soon became part of fashion for kitenge enthusiasts. Many pharmacies that used to sell imported surgical masks soon found local suppliers.

With the Covid positivity rate staying below one per cent since February 10 and the State relaxing the containment measures, the price of masks has been dropping to between Sh5 and Sh10, even before the Friday announcement.

Now this fabric, which has served many as the difference between life and death and many more as the difference between shutting and keeping their business running, may soon go back to its traditional users: doctors and nurses.

Even before Friday, fewer people were masking up. That meant mask-producing companies were not raking in as much money as they did in the first one-and-a-half years of the virus.

Hawkers who read the signs had cut down on their stocks. Many always read the signs. They have no time for piling dead stock to become baggage yet they have to juggle between selling and running away from city askaris.

Many shops, companies and matatus had long stopped checking temperatures and insisting that people sanitise. The market for sanitisers and thermoguns will soon return to where it used to be: hospitals. Another loss for manufacturers.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is credited with a famous observation during the bleakest days of World War II: Never let a good crisis go to waste. The suppliers of face masks, sanitisers and thermoguns did not waste this crisis.

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