Saturday 19 September, 2020

Jamaicans making masks to flatten the curve

iStock image

iStock image

There’s a cross-section of casual and professional mask makers, who have begun making the reusable protective gear to meet the need for protection against the spreading coronavirus (COVID-19).

While all are focused on producing face coverings which are fit-for-purpose, not all are looking at the bottom-line.

Seventy-two-year-old Eliza Lewis and her son Richard Lewis (both names changed at their request) who started in April have both been giving away the masks as fast as they make them.

The elder Lewis, who is a retired Jamaican teacher of Clothing and Textile and who lives in Hartford, Connecticut, said she is simply indulging her love for sewing and helping to answer the overwhelming need for personal protective gear.

Her son, aged 37 and resident in Montego Bay, said he also dusted off his sewing machine – previously used to create craft products – because he saw there was a need for the masks. He is yet to sell one, unable to resist the urge to continue giving them away.

iStock image of a sewing machine

However, Loop News came across two entrepreneurs who were a bit more focused on producing the masks as a business, having invested some cash to produce the items.

Over in Falmouth, Trelawny, full-time teacher and part-time baker Shona-Kay Spencer Smith switched from baking to making masks, since the COVID-19 outbreak one month ago.

She told Loop News: “After doing some research, I saw how masks helped to flatten the curve (masks help in social distancing and infection prevention, thereby reducing the number of infected individuals who are hospitalised).

She started by helping those with underlying conditions, which would make them more vulnerable to the viral illness.

Spencer-Smith said, “I made masks for my friends and family and persons in my community that had ailments that made them more likely to perish from COVID 19.  Asthmatics and hypertensives on medication and diabetics were my initial focus.”

Photo of face masks made by Shona-Kay Spencer Smith

Later, however, she began to think of a way to recover her costs which were increasing.

As she tells it, “It became very costly to make masks to give away, so I started selling masks to be able to give more away. After selling masks I was able to donate masks to the infirmary and my church.”

Spencer-Smith said she is not sure of the cost to start up because “it wasn’t an intentional business. But, I have spent a lot of money on fabric because I try to select thicker fabrics which end up being three to four times more expensive than cotton. But, I keep doing it because I try to make masks for others that I would feel comfortable standing beside them in."

“The teacher/baker turned seamstress said, “So far, the experience has been good. I find that persons are appreciative of the thought input into selecting fabrics. I’ve seen people come to me saying they have bought other masks but heard that I sell the good masks.”

She noted that there are some clients who “want a mask for fashion, but the majority of my customers want one for public safety.”

Spencer-Smith has invited members of the community to earn an income from the venture

When Spencer-Smith discovered that there was a market for masks that would be more than sufficient for her "pop-up ministry", she sought to train family members to take over but none were interested.

Fortunately, she found one woman, freshly unemployed, who was willing to learn.

‘She and her husband are currently out of work because they work in the tourism industry. She had never touched a machine before I encouraged her to. She now does mask-making to help sustain her family of four,” Spencer-Smith said.

The teacher also makes use of others in need of income. She concluded, “When orders come to me I try to ensure that everyone gets some [to do so they can get paid].

The teacher/baker admitted, “Breaking even was never a thought of mine and still isn’t.  I hope to get back to cakes soon. That’s my real talent. I am not sure how long making masks will last. I just want to help Jamaica to flatten the curve.”

A banker and tailor join forces

Husband and wife team Natalie Ferguson and Joseph Williams have turned to mask making as a means of meeting fixed costs on a tailoring establishment in Montego Bay which was closed down because of COVID-19.

Ferguson who speaks for the couple said the motivation to produce the masks was two-fold.

“We wanted to play our part in the fight against COVID-19. We also saw it as an opportunity to capitalise on, one that could generate the needed income to cover the fixed cost of the business.”

As to start-up costs, she indicated “It is difficult to put a figure to the raw materials that were used to start the mask making, as some were existing materials in the shop used in the general operation of the business.”

“Injection of capital for this project is ongoing, as we strive to please our customers. As such, we are constantly purchasing raw materials (mainly cloth and elastic bands). Raw materials cost to date is under $50,000,” Ferguson said.  Source of funds is a line of credit.

Photo of Natalie Ferguson's modelling one of her face masks.

Ferguson recalled that the couple were not expecting any challenges in taking on the venture.

She said, “Prior to even making the first mask, I sent out a WhatsApp message informing a significant number of my contacts that I would have washable masks for sale soon.”

“As soon as the first set of masks for made, persons who responded favourably were sent pictures of the masks. The photos were also uploaded to my status.”

Ferguson received numerous queries about the materials used and how much protection those masks offered. Consequently, she said, “I was forced to do my homework. I went and conducted desktop research on masks. It was from those findings the product was modified.”

The first masks were made from synthetic materials (similar to that which makes shopping bags). From day three onwards, however, the masks were only made from cotton.

Later, the couple faced a challenge in sourcing raw materials.

“The fabric stores are often out of elastic bands and some of the cloth we wanted. So we had to go to other parishes to purchase same,” she said.

The couple had what the woman describes as “great experience with the marketing and selling of the masks.”

“Social media and network marketing were utilised. My contacts were informed each time we got a new fabric,” Ferguson said.

She outlined, “Joseph and I played different roles to make this project a success. He is responsible for the mask-making and engaging other tailors to assist with the manufacturing of masks to fill the orders on a timely basis.

“I am responsible for marketing, selling, quality control and taking up orders.”

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Ferguson said she believes the market for masks will be saturated by mid-May.

She commented, “We strongly believe that business will slow down within the next two weeks. Everyone is making masks now. So there will be an influx of masks; this will ultimately reduce the income generation from masks.”

In preparation for this, the couple is considering a few business ideas and projects to take on when the demand for masks fall.

“We will analyse each thoroughly before making a decision,” she outlined.”  To date, the masks sales for the former tailoring establishment have passed the breakeven point.

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