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Growth & Jobs | Down but not out: MSMEs make face masks to minimise COVID-19 spread

Published:Tuesday | April 21, 2020 | 12:14 AM
Technical Services Manager at the Jamaica Business Development Corporation, Colin Porter.
Technical Services Manager at the Jamaica Business Development Corporation, Colin Porter.

SEVERAL MICRO, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) have answered the Government’s call to provide innovative solutions in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) by producing protective face masks.

Technical Services Manager at the Jamaica Business Development Corporation (JBDC), Colin Porter, said the corporation has been working with its MSME clients to produce face masks, using the recommended health and safety specifications.

The production of the masks is being guided by the JBDC, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

“The JBDC was approached by the Ministry of Health to give some guidance to persons in terms of making the correct specifications,” he says.

Porter points out that the JBDC has been using the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended specifications to guide MSMEs in the production of fabric masks.

“Fabric masks don’t offer the same level of protection as the surgical masks and the N95 masks, but through organisations such as the WHO and the CDC, they are recommending more and more that people use fabric masks to provide some basic level of protection,” he says.

The recommended specifications for the production of face masks are 100 per cent cotton fabric, a non-porous breathable material or filter to be placed between fabrics, and elastic or cloth strings to secure the face mask.

“We have been sharing this information with our clients in terms of the best types of fabric to use, the most effective design, and recommendations on how to tweak these designs to make these masks work as effectively as possible,” the technical services manager explained.

“The dimensions are standard for adults. We don’t have the specifications for children, but some persons have adapted the sizes to fit children,” the JBDC official added.

Porter said there are varied designs of masks by local producers, some of which include the use of a metal strip which is placed at the top of the mask to conform to the shape of the nose, ensuring a snug fit.

“We look at different types of material that meet the hygiene and health requirements and allow for the masks to be properly washed and laundered. Those are some of the things we have been working on with them,” he said.

He further noted that the JBDC had commenced making prototypes of masks to assist clients in the production.

“There are about 10 clients we are working with. Some have employees. These are persons who, for example, work in the fashion industry but may have seen a dramatic downturn in sales of orders for garments, so they have now directed their teams to producing masks,” he explained.


Porter added that some MSMEs had taken the initiative to start making these fabric masks on their own, and that the JBDC is reaching out to these producers to submit their designs to ensure that these masks are in accordance with the recommended guidelines.

“We are reaching out to them as well to inform them, so if their masks don’t conform to the specifications, they will have the opportunity to adjust and ensure they are of the correct standard,” he said.

The JBDC also advises its clients to conduct basic trials to determine the effectiveness of the masks.

“If you can blow through the mask and extinguish a flame, then you probably don’t have the right material. The more difficult it is to extinguish the flame, the more effective the material,” he explained.

Porter said clients are also advised to include product use and care information in the packaging.

“We do this to remind people that this is not 100 per cent guaranteed protection from any kind of virus, but it does provide some barrier protection. We are teaching them to [include] this information so that people are fully aware of the proper use of the product,” he emphasised.

Porter said the masks being sold through the MSMEs established distribution channels and social media platforms.

“Some clients are beyond the prototype stage and are making masks and supplying these to the market, so we are past the prototype stage and people are in production. The masks our MSMEs are producing are robustly constructed, comfortable, and they can be properly laundered without disintegrating. We are having persons make masks that can last some amount of time,” he noted.

Porter said the JBDC will soon be making its clients’ masks available for purchase through the corporation’s Things Jamaican online store.

The technical services manager noted that although the masks are being supplied to meet local demand at the moment, sale of the merchandise through the online store will probably present an opportunity for export at a later date.

“We are working with persons to have their masks distributed through our online store.

When we do get them on our Things Jamaican e-commerce platform, then persons living outside of Jamaica will be able to purchase them for their own use, so that could be an avenue for export,” Porter suggested.

Although masks do not offer complete protection, it does act as a barrier to block particles ejected from sneezing and coughing. It also encourages mindful behaviour, including avoiding touching one’s mouth, nose and eyes.

Certain categories of persons are now required to wear masks under the new orders announced by Prime Minister Andrew Holness to contain the spread of COVID-19.