Many textile and clothing factories were able to re-purpose their production lines to respond to the demand for fabric masks and other PPE as a result of early interventions in the market. Photo: File
Many textile and clothing factories were able to re-purpose their production lines to respond to the demand for fabric masks and other PPE as a result of early interventions in the market. Photo: File

A PPE success story

By Opinion Time of article published Feb 17, 2021

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By Eustace Mashimbye

DURING his State of the Nation Address (Sona) last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said “we can get through this, because we are a nation of heroes. I am referring not to the glorious lineage of struggle icons, but to everyday heroes who walk amongst us, who work hard every day to put food on the table, to keep companies running and to give support, help and care to our people.”

In collaboration with the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (dtic), Proudly South African has been part of a working group of everyday heroes – a remarkable endeavour that has brought together industry, government entities and organised labour in an effort to address the demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needed to address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March last year, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the scramble by the medical fraternity and consumers for fabric face masks and other PPE started, South Africa was unprepared and ill-equipped to meet the sudden surge in demand.

The country was dependent on imports for more than 90 percent of its pre-pandemic requirements for medical masks, gowns, aprons and other textile-related outer protective clothing. The surge in global demand produced a massive increase in prices.

As we entered the first wave of Covid-19 cases, South Africa could list only five local companies that were capable of producing medical grade FFP2 respirator masks. They had a combined output of 5.7 million units a month against a requirement of 16 million masks a month when demand peaked. None of these local manufacturers, which had previously only supplied industrial customers, was licensed by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) to supply products for use in clinical settings.

With the intervention and assistance of a structured public-private partnership between the dtic, Business for South Africa and organised labour, supported by Proudly South African, six fully licensed companies have achieved category 1 status. This means they are Sahpra-licensed, capacitated and audited for local content, and able to produce more than 15 million masks a month. A further six companies are ready to be licensed and to come on-stream.

The partnership has been created under the heading of the PPE and Medical Equipment Local Manufacturing Partnership (LMP), which has various workstreams focused on collaborating with local companies to scale their production capacity, meet regulatory standards, and obtain the certifications and licences across different key PPE categories. These include FFP2 masks, textile PPE - for example, gowns and aprons - face visors, sanitisers and disinfectant, testing kits and gloves.

Production volumes have increased so substantially in some areas that there is a need for an export workstream, looking for the best markets and opportunities for local companies that have sufficient surplus production and relevant certification to allow them to export their goods.

In addition, in March/April last year, the partnership ensured that the Recommended Guidelines for the Manufacture and Use of Fabric Face Masks were developed, using research from international best practice and academic studies and in consultation with local specialists.

Many textile and clothing factories were able to re-purpose their production lines to respond to the demand for fabric masks and other PPE as a result of early interventions in the market.

The trajectory in the number of category 1 companies, from only five in March last year to 50 by the end of January this year, is testimony to the work of the LMP. Local accreditation bodies such as the South African Bureau of Standards, the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications and Sahpra, have also had to ramp up their verification processes to ensure 100 percent compliance with relevant medical and local content standards.

With self-sufficiency in the supply of PPE in South Africa almost attained, public sector procurement departments can now fully comply with the 100 percent local content threshold requirement under the dtic’s designation in terms of the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act.

Perhaps most gratifying, despite popular belief that locally manufactured products are inferior in quality and superior in price to imported goods, the economies of scale that have been achieved are such that locally manufactured PPE is, in most cases, delivered at prices that are the same as (and, in many cases, below) imported equivalents. Our quality is completely assured by the verification processes by agencies relevant to the sector.

The achievement of the LMP is an astonishing turnaround in the supply-and-demand patterns of locally manufactured PPE. Although small gaps still exist in gloves and disposable aprons, we are working on exporting other items of which we have a surplus capacity, bringing much-needed export revenue into our economy. And most important, we are creating jobs when our economy has been battered by the pandemic.

The LMP and Proudly South African are seeking the commitment of the private sector to procure exclusively locally manufactured PPE, and in so doing, recognising the benefits to themselves and the country. Buying local also reduces supply-chain risk - no suspended flights, closed borders or other threats to delivery dates, and no vulnerability to exchange rate fluctuations. Shorter order-lead times enable more flexible and agile demand planning and procurement - with the resultant positive impact on cash flows and working capital for buyers.

The LMP is an example of the success that public-private partnerships can achieve and one of which we are extremely proud. If your company has the opportunity to be part of one that can benefit all parties, do not hesitate to support it.

The best way to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, while also fighting poverty and unemployment, is to take control where we can, and choosing to buy locally made PPE and related products is one example of how to do this.

As The Parlotones quipped in their hit song “Should we fight back”, the resounding response in this instance is that we should fight back like never before as a country and as an economy. I have personally seen the sacrifices these individuals have made, and I salute each one of the unsung heroes who were part of the LMP. They have laid the foundation, and we can’t let their efforts go to waste. The future of this country is in our hands.

The president made the following call in Sona 2021: “People of South Africa, it is your country that calls on you to rise. Let’s march forward…” Ensure that your actions support this call and buy local. Buy “Made in South Africa” products to create much-needed jobs.

Eustace Mashimbye is the chief executive of Proudly SA.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites


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