Oct 29th, 2020, 01:56 PM

The Covid Crisis and the Rise of the Face Mask Industry in The Gambia

By Nafisatou Tambajang
Nafi FFP mask (Filtering Face Piece)
The pandemic has created a booming market for masks in the tiny African country.

Gambian designer Ya Awa Conateh adjusts her mask as I get ready to interview her on a remote video call. She is wearing bright colors and her skin as shiny as the Gambian sun in October, always the hottest month. Her black and green haircut is fascinating, not the norm for the typical Gambian femme. In the background, I can hear birds chirping and roosters crowing.

Ya Awa Conateh and I have something in common: we both make and market mask in The Gambia. "Yaws", as she is known, is a designer extraordinaire from the tiny West African country. She is the CEO of Yawscreations, which she has successfully managed over the past 10 years. Her clothing line has focused on lifestyle and the latest African trends. Then the pandemic struck. “People stopped buying clothes, jobs laid off their staff or did not pay them their salaries because of the economic challenges the country faced due to the virus," she says. "Tourists stopped coming in.”

The Gambia normally attracts over 100,000 tourists a year. The tourist sector is the second highest sources of foreign revenue. In these tough times, Yaws is now in the face mask business, a booming industry in the country since the pandemic hit. 

Before starting this new business niche, Yaws had no experience in the facemask industry, but it has been very profitable. At the same time, as part of her corporate social responsibility (CSR) she gave away over 400 free masks to the under-privileged. Even though it's rare to come across homeless people in The Gambia, there is still visible poverty in most areas. Yaws also started a campaign for mask donations on her social media platforms. While the business has been profitable during the pandemic, many wonder if it is sustainable, especially in Gambia where purchasing power is not strong.

  Gambian designer extraordinaire Ya Awa Conateh

Mask sales have nonetheless kept her business afloat since everything else had come to a halt. “I personally do not like wearing the facemask and do not believe it is ideal for most but there are business and political influences surrounding the facemask and I am happy with where I am business wise,” she says. She holds up a piece of cloth “wax”, as it's called in Gambia, and explained how reusable masks are saving the environment and limiting excessive litter.

The Gambia is a small country surrounded by Senegal, with its own British colonial history. The country not only survived imperial rule but also endured 22 years of dictatorship under then president Yahya Jammeh. A new wave of democracy arrived in this small nation, bringing new opportunities for free business, trade, and freedom of speech — things that are taken for granted in other parts of the world. But this was a newborn baby in this small nation of only two million people.

The rise of Covid worldwide has surpassed Gambia’s human population, according to the World Heath Organization (WHO). The current confirmed cases are over 41 million. The coronavirus epidemic began spreading globally in January 2020, though Gambia did not have high numbers until the summer. Suddenly in July, the virus hit the country and everybody went into panic mode. It was at this point that the Covid pandemic created a market for mask in the country. Business owners like Yaws, tapped into this opportunity. Other entrepreneurs in the same market niche include Ndey Fatou Njie “Tiga”, Stop Step Pharmacy, and Nafi. The focuses of  their businesses shifted from clothing fashion, textile, medication to mask production. 

"Medical fashion was the new trend. At least I saved funds on fabric because I used less in the production of mask and surgical cap making," says Tiga, a Gambian law graduate who has collaborated with the EU, local market women, healthcare and frontline workers and sensitization campaigns.

Gambian mask entrepreneur "Tiga" 

Many others went into the mask business, despite no background in healthcare or previous business experience. Everybody seemed to want to profit from of the Covid pandemic. The major fashion brands also joined this momentum.

As the WHO gave weekly briefings on the seriousness of the virus, rules and regulation in regard to mask and health professionals provided guidelines for entrepreneurs. On June 7th, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom announced updated guidelines that highlighted three things: who should wear a mask, when a mask should be worn, and what a mask should be made of. Fabric mask should consist of three layers of material, mask should be worn in crowded places, and people especially over 50 should always wear a mask. Pharmacies also began to follow the rules. Not only did they get mask for their staff, but pharmacies began selling masks. Demand for medications was at a standstill, except for cough syrup, painkillers and vitamin C. Pharmacies quickly realized that selling mask would increase their sales.

Ma Hawa Njie, the general manager of Stop Step Pharmacy, smiled when asked if he loved his job. Today he loves his job even more, not only because  the corona virus crisis has increased sales, but also because his company makes mask donations to rural communities. 38-year-old Ma Hawa, married with one son, says the best masks are breathable and of good quality. His company buys masks from multiple entrepreneurs in order to help these upstart businesses and encourage creativity among upstart businesses.

Ma Hawa faced a lot of challenges regarding to the virus, as many believed it was “the white man’s illness” and therefore was not meant for Africans. “Many believed that it was a conspiracy theory in order to place a new world order and others said the Chinese created the virus for world population control," he says. "I had numerous conversations with people about the reality and dangers of the virus.”

NAFI FFP MASK filtering face piece made by Nafi

A lot more Gambians came into terms with how real it was when numbers surpassed the thousands in just over a week. People like Astou Ndiaye, a salon owner who had never been to school but studied beauty at a beauty institute in Senegal, mentioned she thought the Gambian government kept increasing the numbers by the week because they wanted more funding from the world bank and other international organizations. “The World Bank Board approved a $10 million grant from the International Development Association (IDA) for The Gambia to provide emergency assistance in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.

The COVID-19 Response and Preparedness Project is meant to enhance case detection, tracing, and reporting, as well as provide equipment to isolation and treatment centers, and improve disease surveillance and diagnostic capacity. It will also focus on risk communications and community engagement for increased awareness and compliance with prevention and social distancing measures.


Community engagement was something Tiga did aggressively.  She realized has a strong passion for fashion and she just could not let that dream die, so five years ago she started her company “Tiga”. Her production process was that she had a group of tailors like Yaws who made her mask unlike that of “Nafi” that is made in a factory. Both she and Yaws used wax material to make their masks.  “I was making surgical caps made of African material for doctors, so I had more experience than others when it came to the distribution medical material," says Tiga.

The goal Tiga's mask production is not profitability. She is looking for a solution to solve the shortage of pharmaceutical masks for doctors and come up with reusable, sustainable masks for the general public. She believes that the reusable mask unlike the N-95 mask is a sustainable solution to buying pharmaceutical mask which can be pricey overtime for the average Gambian.  Asked what she thought of the mask long-term, she says that as long as there is no vaccine, we will all need to be more careful, wear masks, social distance and wash our hands.