West African clothing manufacturers pivot to medical apparel

Workers in Maagrace contribute to the government mask program during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo courtesy of Ethical Apparel Africa
Workers in Maagrace contribute to the government mask program during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo courtesy of Ethical Apparel Africa

By Paloma Schackert and Bettina Boateng

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the global economy and profoundly affected apparel supply chains. Garment factories worldwide have faced an onslaught of order cancellations, leading to widespread layoffs of economically vulnerable workers, often without pay and severance. Ethical Apparel Africa, a sourcing company that connects manufacturers to retailers, is working with its factory partners in Ghana and Benin to pivot operations and retain jobs by manufacturing medical apparel. USAID provided the funding to enable this pivot, which will combat local and global shortages of medical supplies while ensuring industry jobs are retained.

In Ghana, the apparel manufacturing industry employs, on average, 70 percent women—mostly in women-owned and managed firms. One firm, Maagrace Garments, located in Koforidua, has quickly grown over the past year from a small base to more than 300 employees. With Ethical Apparel Africa’s support, Maagrace began exporting in fall 2019 and, before the COVID-19 pandemic, was already producing medical scrubs for the U.S. market. In the past months, as demand for medical apparel has grown, production volumes have steadily increased. This steady increase has allowed the factory to upskill its majority female workforce further while also implementing meal, transport, and health education support programs for workers.

Another partner, Africa New Confection in Cotonou, Benin, recently pivoted to produce medical scrubs for the first time. In 2017, they had achieved the first-ever export—attire for clergy—to the United States from Benin through the African Growth and Opportunity Act. After the pandemic hit, the clergy-wear orders were canceled, and Ethical Apparel Africa provided technical guidance and market facilitation to support Africa New Confection to launch scrub-apparel production. The factory is now on track to export 100,000 scrub uniforms to the United States this year. This shift will enable them to retain and even expand their workforce of 115 individuals. Africa New Confection has also provided its workers with meal and transport benefits and hopes to launch a daycare program soon to support its female workers further .

With support from Ethical Apparel Africa and USAID, the factories in Ghana and Benin have shown remarkable resilience. Through diversifying capabilities into high-demand product categories, factories have sustained operations, retained jobs for women, continued to improve the quality of these jobs, and set themselves up for strong growth into the future.

Paloma Schackert is the chief operating officer of Ethical Apparel Africa. Bettina Boateng is a senior regional development outreach and communications specialist for USAID’s West Africa Regional Mission in Accra. 

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