Jack Omondi, like most people, fears death.
He does not wish to die before seeing his four children go to school, learn and become better than he is.
He stares at his groceries as he searches for the right words to describe the coronavirus outbreak and how he plans to play his part in fighting it.
“I will spend anything to buy a mask. If this is what will keep my wife, my children and me safe from coronavirus, if this will keep us away from death, then I will spend whatever coin I can to buy them. I have more than 20 now,” Mr Omondi, 29, a grocery seller at the Eldoret main market says.
He goes to work every morning with at least two of them, each with a different colour. He wears one until 12pm, then he replaces it. He has been telling whoever cares to listen to buy a mask to be safe from getting infected.
“It is either we take this coronavirus thing seriously or we all perish. We can play with other things but on this one I am not going to play around,” he adds, adjusting his mask so it covers his mouth and nose properly. He checks whether the other mask is still in the pocket.
It is money he had not budgeted for, but he says he sacrificed the savings he had to buy them for his family.
“I wish the government could supply us with free masks. This is the best thing they can do for us this time. They can decide to take money from other non-essential areas and buy masks for all Kenyans or those struggling to make ends meet like us,” he adds, saying they have also ensured everyone entering the often busy market wash their hands before selling or buying groceries.
Along Market Road, just 300 metres from Mr Omondi’s stall, is Ms Julia Nasimiyu, 29, busy selling the masks similar to those he bought some days ago.
“I sell at least 20 a day. One goes for Sh50. The tailor sells to me for Sh30. I make a profit of Sh400 in day, which is fair in these tough times. People buy them because they cannot enter almost every building in town without wearing one,” Ms Nasimiyu, a mother of three, says. She abandoned her mitumba business to sell the masks.
“No one was buying mitumbas anymore so I shifted to masks. Although I was making at least Sh1,000 a day with mitumba, I was not making any sales since there were no more mitumba shipments after the government-banned importation,” she reveals.
The underground masks industry has quickly thrived in the last week after the government asked Kenyans to wear them in public places.
When Minister of Health Mutahi Kagwe last week made it mandatory for anyone to wear masks, all makes and types have been hawked in towns, with their quality and prices differing greatly.
But Rift Valley Textiles, Rivatex, is seeking to provide well priced quality masks as it rushes to take the lead in supplying the country with the much-needed equipment to fight the deadly coronavirus that was declared a global pandemic by World Health Organisation last month.
Barely 10 months since President Uhuru Kenyatta relaunched the once-struggling textile factory in Eldoret town last June, the firm now faces its biggest challenge yet.
Alongside Kitui County Textile Centre factory (Kicotec), Rivatex has been pushed by the government to take the lead in the production of Kebs-approved masks that are not only affordable, but also easily available to most Kenyans.
The masks are currently in high demand after the World Health Organisation proscribed wearing them as one of the ways of preventing the aerosol transmission of the coronavirus.
The first Covid-19 infection was confirmed in the country on March 13. The numbers of cases have since shot up pushing the government to act quickly to avert transmission of the disease that was first reported in Wuhan, China in December of last year. Cases are nearing two million globally with close to 100,000 deaths.
For a company whose machines have been silent for years before Moi University acquired it in 2007, the challenge is massive, but the managing director, Prof Thomas Kipkurgat, said they were up to the task.
“As a vertically integrated textile mill, we have stepped up our production of masks, all aimed at providing a solution to the public who are in dire need of Personal Protective Equipment during this ongoing pandemic,” Prof Kipkurgat told the Nation in an interview.
“Immediately the government through the Ministry of Trade and Industry made a clarion call to all manufacturers, we sent our samples to Kebs for approval. We have two quality varieties, woven and non-woven,” Prof Kipkurgat said.
The company can produce up to 30,000 masks a day, each going for retail price of Sh50 and are available in Rivatex shops across the country.
Kicotec is also producing a similar number and has received much praise from the WHO and the Ministry of Health for leading the way in masks production.
Tasked with the massive demand to supply a population of over 47 million, Rivatex has now focused most of its resources on producing the masks, with the intention of flooding the market with long-lasting and affordable products.
The Ministry of Trade has been pushing leading textile manufacturers in the country to not only rise to the occasion, but to also do so with quality products as per the recommended standards.
Prof Kipkurgat said they were aware of the government guidelines and were following them to the letter in a bid to distinguish themselves from what the Jua kali sector is making.
“We are grateful to the government for working closely with us through provision of guidelines on how to make recommended masks and giving us a platform to produce them en masse,” he said.
The biggest challenge that has recently faced the local textile industry has been shortage of locally produced raw materials with most of them including the Eldoret-based miller, forced to import cotton in a bid to surmount the shortage.
Rivatex, for instance, normally receives close to 10,000 bales of cotton from the local farmers despite needing over 60,000 for optimal performance.
Prof Kipkurgat, who was applauded by President Kenyatta last year for the revival of the milling factory that was once a giant but which went down because of financial constraints over decades ago, said they had already prepared for the demand by mopping up available raw materials needed for massive production of the equipment to battle the virus.
“Before the first case of Covid-19 was announced, we had already embarked on mopping up cotton from the farmers in the country especially those we have been supporting with free seeds and pesticides. Our appeal to them is that they should continue cultivating their farms during this pandemic now that they are assured of a ready market,” he said.
After its revival last year, the firm has received better attention from the government. Its success has attracted more favour from the government, earning it more financial investments.
In this financial year, the company received a shot in the arm after the Treasury allocated it Sh1.1 billion which is aimed at boosting production.
This was in addition to Sh3 billion from the Export-Import (Exim) Bank of India directly injected to the factory in 2016 after President Kenyatta signed a deal with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi while on a visit to the country.
The money was used to buy new machinery and renovate those that had been dormant for years. The MD said the company was not only properly equipped to produce masks, but was also supplying other much-needed equipment in hospitals like bed sheets.
“At the moment, our focus is on masks and, going forward, we will work towards production of other crucial items required in the fight against Covid-19. We are also going on with production of other garments such as bed sheets for Kemsa and linen for hospitals,” said Prof Kipkurgat.
Since its refurbishment, the textile manufacturer, has targeted working with counties in the Rift Valley but also other devolved units across the country as it seeks to boost cotton farming as it looks to expand local production of the crop.
The company has already approached counties including Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet, Pokot, Turkana, Busia, Vihiga, Teso and Kericho for partnership in BT cotton production although most are yet to take the offers seriously.
The target is to stop importing cotton because if the farmers were empowered with right farming practices, including making available BT cotton to them, they will be able to supply the factory with adequate bales.
A spot check by the Nation showed that farmers in these counties were still planting the low-yield crops, the biggest challenge for them being the lack of BT cotton seeds.
Prof Kipkurgat also confirmed that the eye-catching designer shirts the President has been wearing lately to his press conferences on coronavirus were designed and specifically made for him by the firm.
He said since the President visited the factory last year, he had been impressed by their shirts and had frequently ordered them.
“The President is our number one marketer and we applaud him for constantly taking the lead in promotion of local products. He has put us on a high pedestal in the country and beyond. This is a good gesture that has lifted our hopes and we strive to do more now that we have modern machines.
Through his love for our shirts, we have been able to penetrate into the market,” said Prof Kipkurgat.
He said owing to the President’s preference for the shirts, other prominent personalities like Cabinet secretaries, lawmakers, House speakers, governors and other senior government officials had already ordered for similar outfits, which he said were priced according to the design, size and fabric used.
Kenyans can also buy them from Rivatex shops across the country.
The government has already imposed a temporary ban on importation of second-hand clothes in a bid to ward off further imported Covid-19 infections, giving an opportunity to the local factories to fill in the gap as the world battles the disease.
“Importation of used clothes is suspended with immediate effect to safeguard the health of Kenyans and promote local textiles,” said Trade Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina two weeks ago.
When he relaunched Rivatex last June, President Kenyatta ordered government employees to put on clothes made by the local textile factories on Fridays in a move aimed at inducing confidence in a sector where most people prefer imported attire to the local makes.
Presently, the company is also supplying clothes to various government institutions including Kemsa, KDF, the Police, National Youth Service, Kenyatta National Hospital and Kenyatta University.
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