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Tailors turn to making fashionable, functional masks

Ugochukwu Nweke makes cloth face masks in her shop in Nsuge, Nigeria. (Blessing Udeobasi/YJI)

Nsugbe, Anambra, NIGERIA – Before the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria in late February, Ugochukwu Nweke was busy making dresses for people due to attend different ceremonies, including graduation, weddings, and funerals.

As the pandemic began to hit several cities and towns, businesses were forced to close shop. For Nweke, it meant most of the clothing she had made was not collected by her customers. Many of them were either unable to travel or had to cancel their events.

A fashion designer in the small southeastern Nigerian town of Nsugbe, Nweke said most tailors became idle and struggled to survive amid rising cases of the pandemic.

But everything changed in late April following a directive by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari requiring people to wear masks and face coverings in all public spaces as part of wider efforts to reduce the spread of the covid-19 virus.

The Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19, which coordinates Nigeria’s response, began to urge local tailors to produce face masks using local fabrics to meet surging demands.

As more people sought and purchased disposable masks, their prices rose five-fold to 500 naira (about $1.30 USD) in some cities.

This created a gap that tailors like Nweke, using local fabrics, could close. Cloth face masks produced by tailors are usually sold between 100 to 200 naira ($0.26 to 0.52 USD) and unlike disposable masks, they are reusable.

So far, she has sold more than 100 face masks, which she drapes over the entrance of her shop in Nsugbe.

“I have also taught at least 10 persons how to make the facemask and they are really doing well,” she says.

Another fashion designer, Oghenetejiri Ogodo, said she shifted from making Ankara fabric bags and accessories to face masks to meet increasing demands for locally-made masks which are more affordable.

“Today, we make over 1,000 pieces per day depending on our clients’ order and expected date of delivery,” said Ogodo, the creative director of LaTEJ Creations in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub.

Nino Obidigbo, a senior student at the University of Nigeria in Enugu, says she prefers cloth face masks to disposable medical-type masks due to affordability.

Teen vendors sell cloth face masks at a major market in the southeastern Nigerian city of Onitsha. (Blessing Udeobasi/YJI)

“The locally-made reusable face mask is sold for just 100 naira for a piece,” Obidigbo says, “Why shouldn’t I go for it?”

Beyond profit-making, some tailors said they turned to making face masks to support efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

Nweke said she has distributed free face masks to her families and friends.

“This is my own little way of helping cushion the effect of the covid-19 pandemic,” she said. “We do not have to wait for the government to provide us with everything. We all can help out in our own little ways.”

Ogodo, who doubles as a medical biochemist and HIV counselor, says she knew she needed to step in and help after she realized that surgical-type masks were becoming increasingly scarce and expensive.

In the meantime, some people are beginning to use cloth face masks to make a fashion statement. They wear brightly-colored masks which have similar colors as either their clothes and shoes or both.

Precious Nwokeocha, a university student in Enugu, believes fabric face masks are more “fashionable” than disposable face masks which, she said, can be “depressing to wear.”

“I prefer the locally-made ankara fabric face masks because most times, I get to wear them to match my outfit,” Nwokeocha said.

Blessing Udeobasi is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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