Preserving jobs in the garment industry during Covid-19
02 November 2023
09 January 2024
In March 2020, the Government of Rwanda took swift action to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and preserve public health and safety. However, country-wide lockdowns and movement restrictions, as well as the generally prevailing global business uncertainty led to Rwanda’s first recession in 25 years. For several months, public life in the East-African country halted, jeopardizing the livelihoods of many Rwandans. Particularly affected were poor people and those working in informal jobs.
Like many industries, the Rwandan garment industry, faced significant challenges during the pandemic. The sector relies on imported raw materials, but global supply chain disruptions caused delays, reducing local production capacities. As international demand plummeted amidst economic uncertainties, garment orders were cancelled, and company export revenues stalled. Lockdowns and social distancing protocols in Rwanda led to labour shortages, further disrupting manufacturing operations. The closure of retail stores and local mobility restrictions even after lockdowns ended hindered domestic sales. Altogether, many Rwandan textile companies struggled to survive, had difficulties maintaining their workers, and paying salaries.
During that time, besides the production of food, the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) was permitted. The high demand for PPE products, which share many features with other textile products, offered resourceful garment manufacturers an opportunity to keep their businesses going. However, Rwandan factories, seamstresses and seamster as well as machines were not prepared to produce high-quality PPE. Capital, workforce training, and technical support were needed to pilot new production processes, retain staff, and possibly even create new jobs in new production lines in the long term.
To help preserve jobs in Rwanda, Invest for Jobs partnered with New Kigali Designers and Outfitters (NKDO) to adapt its operations to the challenges brought about by the pandemic. NKDO is a Rwandan family-owned garment manufacturer based in Kigali, the country’s capital. Before the pandemic, the company produced bespoke and mass-produced clothing, mainly for the local market. However, faced with declining orders, a change was needed to keep the lights on and save jobs. By empowering NKDO to produce PPE, the partnership with Invest for Jobs aimed to keep at least 50 per cent of the employees, who would otherwise have been laid off, in work.
Invest for Jobs provided financial support and NKDO was able to reorganise its production facility for the manufacture of PPE, and to implement measures to improve workplace safety. Most importantly, this included the procurement of specialised equipment and materials necessary to produce high-quality protective suits and face masks. A manufacturing expert was tasked with redesigning the factory plan to meet specific hygienic production requirements and to prevent the spread of Covid-19 amongst workers. The expert also trained NKDO tailors and seamstresses in the skills and processes required to produce PPE, making them indispensable workers in the fight against the pandemic. By that time, demand for PPE had substantially grown in Rwanda, where face masks, for instance, remained mandatory in public life until May 2022. NKDO was thus able to even hire and train new employees.
To guarantee the effectiveness of its safety products, NKDO’s production processes, input materials and quality assurance were aligned with the standards of the Rwandan Food and Drug Authority (RFDA). Product samples were tested and approved for mass production by the authorities. Subsequently, the products were brought to the local market through procurement contracts with local hospitals and public institutions.
Shifting the production to personal protective equipment allowed NKDO to retain all its 155 employees throughout the pandemic. Additionally, the success of the project enabled NKDO to grow its workforce, recruiting and training 87 new workers who were kept beyond the project when production slowly shifted back to garments. By the end of the project, NKDO employed 242 workers in total, out of which 167 were women.
Over the course of the pandemic, NKDO produced just short of one million face masks, equipping hospitals, and helping to fill Rwanda’s gap in urgently needed PPE. Today, NKDO has returned to regular garment production. The company continues to grow, having persevered through the pandemic with the support of Invest for Jobs.
Instead of being laid off and struggling to make a living, NKDO’s employees continued earning decent wages during the pandemic, thus supporting their families through their income, and some even saving to fulfil their dream of one day opening their own business.
This project was implemented by New Kigali Designers and Outfitters (NKDO) with the support of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in the context of Invest for Jobs on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
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