What we imagined to be unlikely within one year of establishing the Zambia Accelerator Lab (AccLab), came to pass from unforeseen circumstances. It was unanticipated, happening sooner than expected but driving home the fact that we were indeed on a mission of business unusual. With all the unprecedented issues introduced by the unwelcome onset of COVID-19, we feared our trajectory would be derailed from our focus on the waste management challenge.
As restrictions put in place seemed like we would never be able to complete the Accelerator Lab learning cycle, the new lifestyle imposed by the pandemic introduced a new normal that among others encouraged people to wear masks to protect from and reduce the possibility of spreading the virus to others. Our sensing and exploration that culminated into experimentation that saw us in the physical laboratory and in the field with a few bursts of piloting iterations finally allowed us to understand what it takes to close the Accelerator Lab learning loop.
The guidelines to wear masks created a new challenge of supply versus demand. Frontline workers particularly healthcare personnel directly exposed to the virus were in danger of not having access to the lifesaving medical masks while performing emergency assistance. In addition to the need for the general public to leave medical masks to Healthcare personnel, single use masks utilized by the population would pose a public health and waste management threat. Consequently, the need for alternative protective masks made of other materials also known as nonmedical cloth masks by the general public increasingly became the most suitable option to balance the supply of medical masks to the most at-risk users.
In line with WHO recommendations, which stressed the importance of prioritizing medical masks and respirators for healthcare workers while strongly encouraging countries that issued recommendations for the use of cloth masks by healthy people in the community to conduct research on this critical topic, the Accelerator Lab in April this year working in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MoH), University of Zambia (UNZA) and World Health Organization (WHO) in the country, commissioned a study to test the efficacy of using locally available materials to produce re- usable cloth masks to reduce transmission of the COVID-19. The ultimate objective of the study was to assess whether the use of cloth made masks using local materials would help minimise risk of transmission given that they are a more affordable version for most of the communities in comparison to disposable surgical and medical masks that also pose environmental challenges related to disposal and waste management. The process and learning garnered from this study are covered in our blog Generating evidence during a crisis: Setting standards for re-usable clothe masks in Zambia.
Armed with the evidence from the cloth experiment, the lab explored the question on what the impact of mask design was on protecting the wearer and improving compliance. The next phase involved testing the production modalities in the “test for transition” phase. The pilot phase of production of cloth masks introduced the lab team to four women-led groups of tailors located in Lusaka to support UN activities in relation to Risk Community and Community Engagement (RCCE). The aim of the pilot was to test the productivity and capability of small women entrepreneurs or Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) led by women to fulfil orders of big size within a short period of time of 7 days. The experience was successful with the production of 5,900 cloth masks adhering to the recommendations of the efficacy study.
After the successful implementation of the pilot phase, the team began to search for opportunities for a full scale-up phase to contribute to RCCE activities proposed in the UN COVID-19 Emergency Appeal launched in support to the Government of Zambia (GRZ) COVID-19 Multisectoral Contingency and Response Plan, with the hope that the mass production and distribution of cloth masks will help enforce the government’s call for citizens to comply to the directive to wear masks when in public, and support the supply of the highest quality of cloth masks for the vulnerable in collaboration with UN agencies in country.
The collaboration with the female led MSMEs brought home the negative impact the pandemic had on the small-scale business compounded by the lockdown imposed on certain sectors of the country’s economy. The UNDP Zambia Country Office, was quick to pick this thread and include the support of the bulk production of cloth masks as serving a double function; one of which would be to alleviate the adverse economic effects of the pandemic through a contribution to economic empowerment of MSMEs led by women. The distribution of the masks during the scale-up phase will use community level government structures, in particular, leveraging the existing Youth Volunteer network from the Ministry of Youth and grassroot NGOs that have extensive collaboration with UN agencies for many years. Thus, without realizing it, what had started as a journey to test the efficacy of cloth masks against COVID-19 scaled deeper into a potential project that would impact the lives of the country’s population disproportionately affected by calamities that come in the face of COVID-19. Tasked with the responsibility to support the design of the scale up of the project, the AccLab team went to work guided by the Deputy Resident Representative.
Project proposed timeline, including the scale-up of activities
It did not take long to have a breakthrough. One of our private sector partners — Standard Chartered Bank (SCB), in its continued support to the national fight against Covid-19, offered the UNDP Zambia Office USD 50,000 to support the provision and distribution of Personal Protective face masks in targeted communities. This is in response to one of the ‘Five Golden Rules’ to ‘Mask-up’ advocated by the Ministry of Health.
Speaking at the presentation of the USD50,000 cheque, SCB Zambia committed to support the fight against COVID-19 and offered its support to the UNDP as a trusted partner. The funds will be used to kick start activities for the scale up project by targeting the production of 40,000 masks through two women led tailoring groups. The masks will be distributed to Vulnerable members of the community including women traders across three targeted provinces. Now that is a satisfactory feeling and remarkable outcome!
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