Kenya: How this clothing factory shifted strategy during the pandemic

By Amir Paivar (story) and Ken Oloo (video)

This article was originally published by the IFC.

The story of producing personal protective equipment (PPE) in Kenya is about turning a crisis into an opportunity. Hela Clothing, one of the largest apparel manufacturers in Kenya, rode out the pandemic in part by shifting a portion of its garment production to PPE. As global demand for apparel recovered, the company revived its apparel output while also permanently establishing PPE and workwear production in a standalone manufacturing facility.

Hela Clothing is a $250-million company headquartered in Sri Lanka with additional production plants in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Egypt. The initial stages of the pandemic triggered a sharp drop in demand for garments and forced Hela to reduce its operations at its apparel factory in Kenya. Customers put their orders on hold, and boxes of garments previously ordered by global brands remained on the factory floor.

At the same time, Covid-19 sharply increased the demand for face masks, medical gowns, and coveralls. Distributors like Nairobi-based Ansel Pharmaceuticals used to import them from countries like China, India, and Turkey. The global shortage of PPE made that impossible.

Ansel turned to Hela to form a partnership to make PPE in Kenya. Hela adapted its garment production to sewing PPE by tweaking its production. But the process was delayed by the lack of standards for local PPE production. After one month, the Kenya Bureau of Standards and the Ministry of Health set the compliance standards. Hela received government approval to make reusable masks/respirators, coveralls, medical gowns, and sanitisers.

As the global production of PPE surged and things went back to normal, Hela returned to making its pre-pandemic two million pieces of men’s undergarments while launching a new standalone PPE factory.

Hela’s new plant, under the name Safeguard Workwear, is built next to its old apparel factory near the capital, Nairobi. In October 2021, it delivered its first batch of 20,000 respirators, also known as N95 masks. In November, the production of the mask reached a total of 286,000 pieces per month. The new plant also produced 15,000 pieces of medical uniforms and other PPE.

In addition to certifying the plant, Safeguard Workwear is going through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certification process for the respirators. When obtained, the certificate will make it easier for the company to export globally.

The management consulting firm McKinsey estimates that global demand for medical PPE will return to pre-pandemic levels between 2022 and 2025. But personal protective equipment is not limited to medical use. Demand for industrial workwear is expected to grow in the world’s developing regions. As seen during the pandemic, the disruption of supply chains makes the case stronger for African countries to produce their PPE locally and regionally. This means Hela’s PPE business in Kenya might be here to stay – and possibly to grow in the region.