By Kioko Nyamasyo

COVID-19 caught the whole world unaware. No country had prepared itself for such a strain on their healthcare systems, social lives and economies.

In March 2020, the virus was novel to many, especially here in Kenya. Information on how to protect oneself was scanty and there was also a lot of misinformation about the virus.

To contain the spread of the deadly virus, both state and non-state actors and agencies had to mobilize massively. Led by the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 containment measures and protocols were introduced. These included restrictions on movements, shut down of offices, entertainment facilities, hotels, restaurants and schools, colleges and universities. The measures also included social distancing and wearing of personal protective equipment (PPEs) to help individuals keep the virus at bay.

But there was a problem of availability of PPEs, such as face masks and gloves. The supply was low to non-existent. Countries that produced them even before the pandemics, like China where the virus was first detected in Wuhan, and other thrifty traders, sold them very expensively. They were beyond the reach and means of many ordinary people.

What to do? Something had to be done to save humanity from extinction. Thus, governments and government agencies and institutions and the private sector and private foundations responded robustly to the threat. While others raced to get the vaccine to stop the virus. Others focused on producing the PPEs to slow corona’s wicked march. And the efforts played a remarkable role in combating COVID-19.

One such institution is Rongo University. Located on Kitere Hill just 2.5 Kilometres off Kisii-Migori highway, the university boasts of being a goldmine of knowledge.

When the country was in despair due to the pandemic, Rongo University rose to match its slogan and helped avert a health crisis in its environs and the larger Migori County.

To address the shortage of masks, it quickly turned its textile section into a centre for mass production and distribution of tens of hundreds of face masks and other PPEs that were distributed to students, staff members, local health care workers and the surrounding community at very minimal cost but mostly freely.

Monica Oguta, Lecturer, School of Science, Rongo University.

Monica Oguta, a lecturer at the School of Science, department of physical science, that houses the fashion design and textile technology centre, explains how the university was able to achieve all that.

While admitting that Coronavirus caught everyone unaware, she says that her department was advantaged to have a production unit. ‘The production unit was started in 2013 as a small project that was helping the department to make graduation gowns and other items which would be leased out at subsidized rates to students,’ she says.

In March 2020, the department started looking for ways it can help in combating the virus. “The pandemic came all of a sudden, it was a new disease to the country and something had to be done,” Monica explains.

“We responded to the government’s call for people to try to make PPEs, this led to many people making substandard masks, especially which were going to health care workers,” she adds.

Through research conducted by Monica and her colleagues in the department, they found out that at that time there was acute shortage of masks in Migori County that met standards set by Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS). “The masks that were being sold were of poor quality and did not have the three layers as specified by Ministry of Health (MoH), which advised people that whichever mask they were going to make had to show zero penetration of coronavirus.”

The two fabrics used in making of masks at Rongo University
A package of 50 pieces of masks sold at Sh 800

The department researched on how to make a mask that coronavirus could not penetrate through. A tailor at the department said “Most people in the area were making masks out of anything, from just polypropylene fabric to just ordinary clothes.” He explained that a mask is supposed to protect you but not to put you at risk of contracting coronavirus.

On the journey of starting production of PPEs, Monica says, “It took us as a university some time before we were able to design and produce the cloth masks, because we had to research on how the virus behaves on different conditions and its characteristics so as to create effective PPEs.”

It was a race against time. “First, we went to KEBS offices in Kisumu City to learn more, then members of the department went to Rivatex in Eldoret which had already been given approval by government to start producing PPEs,” she said.

The textile department was still not satisfied. “We were not satisfied. We called on the lecturers of this university to do more research and to see what others had written about new discoveries in the field,” Monica explains. The research culminated with the team publishing an academic paper on reusable masks.

Prof. Stanley Shitote Deputy Vice Chancellor Administration, Finance and Planning receives the KEBS certificate from KEBs official flanked by the Vice Chancellor of Rongo University Prof Samuel Gudu (in Blue Shirt) and Ms Monica Oguta of the Textile Department

After rigorous research, the department felt ready to start making masks. The first batch was sent to KEBS for approval. To our delight, KEBS certified that the reusable cloth masks being made by Rongo University were up to the set standards by MoH.

“The masks we sent to KEBS were reusable cloth masks. After their approval, the department embarked on researching and making surgical masks to be used by health care workers,” the she explains. The surgical masks also got approval from the standardization body, KEBs. With the two approvals, the department started mass production of PPEs.

The PPEs are produced in sterilized condition. Godfrey Ooko, one of the tailors explains: “We work in a sterilized environment and no unauthorized person is allowed in during production. Before we come in the morning, the room is fumigated and we are given dustcoats which should be changed after every six hours,” he adds.

On why such stringent measures should be taken, he says, “you have to make sure there is no contamination especially on the fabrics used, which include two layers of polypropylene and one layer of Melt Blown fabric.”

The production unit

The PPEs are distributed all over the country, with Migori County Government being the largest client. While anyone can buy the PPEs produced at Rongo University, the main beneficiaries are Rongo University community and residents of Migori County. The masks are sold at Sh 800 for a 50-mask batch.

You can also buy a single mask from the university at a price of Sh 30. This is costly compared to ordinary masks, which go for as low as 5 shillings because they are not made of the Melt Blown fabric, which is said to be a costly fabric, Monica says.

As part of its corporate social responsibility, the university has also donated close to 10,000 masks to the local community. Some of the beneficiaries of the free masks and protective gear are the Rongo District General Hospital, Sub-County Administration, Women groups, Youth groups and Bodaboda (motor cycle public transporters’ group).

Members of the department wearing masks produced at the textile production unit

Dr. Lameck Rono, acting Dean School of Information, Communication and Media Studies at Rongo University, lauds efforts by the textile department to combat COVID-19 within the university and the country at large.

“As the dean of this school I congratulate and commend the textile team here at Rongo University, indeed they came in and demonstrated leadership in time of crisis,’ he says, adding: “Our staff and students are really utilising the PPEs, even the community around us is also benefitting,” he adds.

On the quality of the masks he says: “I can say from the leadership point of view, comparatively these masks from our textile unit are very strong in terms of layers and even durability if you compare with what you can get outside the university.”

On the role the textile department has played in helping the university resume physical learning, he says, “one of the requirements to resume physical learning was to wear masks and keep social distance, textile department really played a vital role in bringing us back to almost normal as far as physical attendance of classes is concerned by making sure that we have a constant supply of masks and other items that we may require.”

Rongo University donates face masks to the local administration of Rongo Sub-County

Augustine Ochieng, a non-teaching staff member at the Rongo University, appreciates the work being done by the textile department: “The products are of good quality and they can be bought at a fairly affordable price for staff. Besides, the masks are made within the university and the proximity makes it possible for everyone at Rongo University to access them.”

The element of quality is echoed by majority of people who use the PPEs. For example, Omondi, a Bodaboda operator says, ‘there is a sense of security you feel when wearing the masks from Rongo University, they are even denser compared to the ones we buy at the market.”

Even so, he laments that not all times he uses the masks from Rongo University because of high cost. “We were given free reusable masks by the university sometime ago and we also buy from them once in a while, as Bodaboda riders sometimes we cannot afford the Sh 30 to buy a mask from the university and opt to buy the cheaper ones sold at the market at Shs 5 apiece,” a Boda Boda rider said.

While admitting he knows the cheap masks at the market might not offer full protection, he says sometimes that is all they can afford.

The issue of affordability is also echoed by the dean of students, who, in a statement because he was out of campus while the research for this story was conducted, congratulated the textile department for the good work but regretted that the current price is beyond the reach of most students. The dean implored the textile department to find ways to innovate masks more affordable for students.

A student from school of arts, who did not want to be named, also cries about high cost of the masks: “We have to wear masks everyday and most of us cannot afford Sh 30 so we end up buying cheap ones that are sold at the hostels,” she says, noting that if the masks were made to match the current market price, many students would buy from the textile department.

There are several challenges that the department faces, Monica admits. She explains that they would love to give out more free masks to the community. Since most people in the area are not well off, they tend to buy cheap masks which do not offer protection. “Each mask we get out there, it means one less person who will not be wearing a defective mask,” says Monica, adding the department cannot always give out free PPEs since its need to meet operational costs.

The department has also had to do sensitization to various groups in Migori County on how to protect themselves from the virus. Monica explains that informing the public on the right masks and right way to use them is just as important as producing them.

The writer is a Masters student at Rongo University.