Masks keep Kutegyeka busy in lockdown

Sunday June 14 2020

Ivan Kutegyeka (L) looks on as h

Ivan Kutegyeka (L) looks on as his worker makes a face mask. PHOTO BY GEORGE KATONGOLE  

By Denis Bbosa

Wearing a cloth mask is without sacrifice. Flushing a smile to someone while in a hurry may no longer be possible. For others, breathing behind a mask has proven difficult let alone those with respiratory conditions. If you are having a hard time breathing behind the mask, entrepreneurs are trying different types of face coverings.

Ivan Kutegyeka, the proprietor of Baje Products, has found a sweet spot between protection and comfort by creating masks people actually want to wear -- aesthetically pleasing to accessorise.

“It is important to make a fashion statement with the choice of masks,” he says offering two choices, face shields and cloth masks.

The wearing of masks has had the added bonus of celebrities normalising the act and entrepreneurs choose to make it trendy.

Ruth Kobusingye, a retail shop owner in Bukoto says face shields are better than the cloth face mask because one can still be identified. Other users like them for their flexible nature yet being transparent enables one to breath with ease while it protects him from contracting the virus.

Birth of an idea
According to Kutegyeka, both options are a great business during the lockdown. The 27-year-old is a curious businessman who has been making school shoes in Bweyogerere since 2013.

“I was researching on YouTube and discovered that face shields are great,” he says.

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Face shields have always been used by frontline medical personnel in case of pandemics. They provide a clear plastic barrier that covers the face. The shields cover the whole face and extend below the chin.

Kutegyeka found out about the necessary medical perspectives on YouTube but what compelled him is the fact that they are essential in protecting people around you by blocking your respiratory droplets.

“I like them because they are highly reusable and require cleaning with soap. They are also comfortable to wear,” he explains on why he makes face shields.

“When speaking, most people pull down the mask but that isn’t necessary with a face shield.” Since his factory had gone idle, he recalled three workers to start manufacturing customised masks and face shields. His fashionable shields are made from recyclable plastics.

Demand is driven by the need to be fashionable and people’s desire to be unique. “We found ourselves in the fight against Covid-19 out of curiosity,” he says.

His face shields cost Shs5,000. This price is slightly cheaper than imported ones from china which trade at Shs28,000 for a pack of five which translates into Shs5,600 for each piece.

New normal?
In many Asian countries, wearing a face mask in public has been normal even before the Covid-19 outbreak because of rapid industrialisation that resulted into contaminated air quality and recent diseases such as SARS. “Socially, we are not used to this norm and making trendy masks is key in making the masks acceptable,” Kutegyeka says.

As Government relaxes the lockdown, it is compulsory for every Ugandan to wear a facemask. Concerns by the National Drug Authority (NDA) about the quality of locally manufactured safety materials remain.

Big players such as Nytil Textiles are already manufacturing reusable masks for a retail price of Shs2,000.
“It is okay to protect people and I support putting in place standard guidelines. Kiyembe (a popular place for tailors in Kampala City) can even produce a million masks a day. Some people may use poor quality clothing like vamp lining which could put users at risk. But regulations should not be protecting the big companies. We should not fear competition,” he says.

Ongoing trend?
It is likely that Covid-19 will be around longer and until the threat of this pandemic has been neutralised, people should embrace the protection masks. A mask or shield, alongside frequent hand washing and physical distancing measures, like staying at least two meters apart, reduces that risk.

“The stay-at-home orders will surely end making the continued use of protective gear vital in preventing continued transmission,” he says. To ensure mass production, each of the employees is paid Shs500 for a finished mask while Shs1,000 is given for shields.

With limited movements, marketing remains a big barrier. He uses a boda-boda to transport to clients within town and he remains stranded with orders from far towns.

At the moment, Kutegyeka markets through social media especially his Facebook account, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp groups. But he is gaining more customers through referrals.

“That is why I must sell good products to get more satisfied customers,” he says.

Keeping afloat
High costs of production are eating into the local entrepreneur’s profits just like Kutegyeka.

“With labour and all related costs considered, it leaves a profit of about Shs1,000. But as local businesses every cent matters in these times to offset rent and power costs,” Kutegyeka explains.

In the first week of operation, he got most orders especially from politicians and community-based organisations. This week, he has been working on an order for a politician who is planning to offer them as relief to the electorate.
“Business is about pitching to the right buyers. I would have sold to hawkers but that option forces you to compromise on quality,” he says.

His target is corporate sales and he is already branding his cloth masks with company messages.
The demand for face shields is still low compared to cloth masks. Last week he made a one-off sale of 1500 cloth masks while orders for face shields remain low.

He plans to customise into the market of football-mad fans by making masks and shields that relate especially to European football teams.

“I know people are missing football and maybe masks and shields printed with their favourite teams will be a great addition to the stock,” he says.

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