On a Tuesday morning on the outskirts of SuperSport Park near Pretoria, the sun shines bright, in contrast to the sombre global mood.
A respiratory mask manufacturer’s thick steel gate is locked, to keep strangers at bay.
“The way it is so busy these days, we do not allow people in without an appointment,” says one of the workers.
But it’s about more than inconvenience; the fear surrounding the spread of the coronavirus, is pervading society, becoming a public health emergency and a significant economic threat.
It is predicted that it will cause a recession in some countries and depress global annual growth this year to below 2.5%.
Market watchers say investors’ fears around Covid-19 are around “its impact on global growth as trade and travel restrictions continue to tighten”.
The virus has brought the oil industry, US Treasury bonds, and many emerging markets to their knees.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
David Molosankwe and Jordean Eksteen, co-founders of U-Mask, a mask manufacturer in Centurion, say production for respiratory masks has increased by 15% in the past ten weeks.
“With the coronavirus, we got exposure globally as well, which gave us an opportunity to showcase [our product offerings] with the Chinese government,” says Eksteen.
He adds that the coronavirus puts the spotlight on any mask manufacturer at the moment.
Serious global shortage
The Word Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the fight against the virus outbreak is being hampered by serious global shortages of face masks and protective suits – of up to six months.
“They [WHO] say there is a mask shortage because there is no way the current manufacturers in play can manufacture enough masks to supply the global demand – it is impossible,” says Molosankwe.
Eksteen adds: “We can’t even supply the Chinese demand, so it is impossible to [meet the needs of] a global pandemic.”
U-Mask manufactures eight types of masks, four of which, according to the WHO description of masks needed for the virus outbreak, are apparently suitable for blocking the spread of Covid-19.
In this factory there are seamstresses, engineers and general workers.
U-Mask usually has 120 employees, but on Tuesday around 20 seamstresses were hard at work as the company strives to keep up with global demand for its masks. The founders say they have had to employ more staff to keep up. The company has also been manufacturing 24 hours a day since the outbreak.
“It is a product that everybody wants now,” says Eksteen.
“It’s not just the industrial sector that has been asking for the masks in the past ten weeks.
“We are very privileged to be in a position that we can help,” he adds. “Our key focus for the business is to manufacture dust masks, and even throughout the outbreak of the virus, that is still our key focus.”
Prior to the outbreak, U-Mask’s products were mainly exported to African markets, but they have now found new ground in South America, Europe, Australia and Asia.
“In terms of the African continent…we have always focused on growing that space because we see our brand as an African brand,” says Eksteen.
In the midst of market turmoil and public fear, the demand for these masks is proving to be profitable.
“Currently the mask is the most valuable commodity in the world,” says Eksteen. “Regardless of whether you look at gold, oil or platinum – people want the dust masks before and over everything else.”
Molosankwe adds: “We are working towards increasing our capacity and in the next three months we will have tripled it.”
The co-founders say that by June they’re hoping to have increased their production capacity from two million masks a month to about six million.
“This is outside of us increasing our [production] capacity for the coronavirus,” says Molosankwe. “This is just us trying to increase our capacity for our regular clients and increasing our footprint in the African continent and the European markets.”
Retailers report unprecedented demand
U-Mask is not the only business that’s cashing in as a result of the outbreak. Retail stores, including Massmart, are seeing unprecedented demand for sanitisers, gloves and respiratory masks.
Dis-Chem says it has sufficient stock of masks, gloves and sanitisers at its warehouses, and has stepped up the allocation of these products to its stores, saying: “Sales have been unprecedented.”
It has increased its orders for gloves, where longer lead times are involved, but says it has not yet experienced any shortages of hand sanitiser stock, particularly in terms of its private label brand because the manufacturing lead times are short on these products.
‘No chancers’ says Dis-Chem
The pharmacy chain says all of its masks are imported, and while replenishment is not regular, it is rejecting chance-taking manufacturers during this period.
“We have refused to buy from certain suppliers who have increased their prices to unreasonable levels. In addition, we are rejecting very large orders being placed for exporting from South Africa, to ensure sufficient stock for our customers.”
However, it adds this is a dynamic environment and its position “may change at any stage”.
Sales volumes for Covid-19-related products are exceeding its projections for the period, and “much will depend on how the situation evolves”.
Pick n Pay also says customers have been buying more personal hygiene products, including hand sanitisers.
“We are working hard to ensure that customers can get the hygiene and other products they need at a time of increased demand.”