IF you had suggested to Ahmed Jahangir, the executive director of Nishat Mills, a few months ago that textile masks will be his company’s new product, he would have snickered and retorted: “Why? What has happened? Did I miss something?”
Today he says masks will now be a permanent part of his future business. “The global demand for textile masks will not dry even when the virus contagion is over,” Mr Jahangir, told this correspondent.
Masks are now the latest fashion accessory and part of the lifestyle worldwide, not just another healthcare item. “We are receiving large orders for all types of textile masks from major American and European brands,” he said.
Textile masks are the new garment for Pakistan’s apparel manufacturers who have been hit hard by the unprecedented slump in the global demand amid the Covid-19 contagion that forced economies to shutter to halt the spread of the infection.
The garment manufacturers are tweaking production lines as global demand for masks spikes with governments ordering their citizens to cover their faces when they get out of their homes as the first line of defence against the virus. Pakistan has only recently allowed export of textile masks as orders from abroad pour in. “There is a huge demand for textile masks out there at a good price. The demand is set to phenomenally rise when the countries lift lockdown restrictions and businesses reopen,” Mr Jahangir elaborated.
His is the first company to start mass production of textile masks in mid-March. “We were trying to procure masks for 60,000 people working for different businesses, including MCB Bank, of the Nishat Group but couldn’t find any supplier,” he said.
‘Garment exporters are receiving serious inquiries for millions of pieces of caps, isolation gowns, overalls and other cotton-based protective gear from foreign retailers, governments and militaries every day. This is a big opportunity for us to partially make up for our export losses’
It was then he decided to manufacture masks. Initially, they thought of using non-woven material. But it’s shortages made them look for other materials. He soon discovered that countries like Germany prefer masks made from woven materials for daily use by healthy people as protection against microorganisms and pollution. Non-woven materials or breathers like N95 are recommended only for hospital use by frontline health workers and caregivers working in a hazardous environment.
“Ours is the country’s first garment company to start production of textile masks and also get export orders,” Mr Jahangir boasted. The company has in the last one month or so received significantly large orders for the barrier masks from a number of global brands and the French military, which it will start shipping from this month.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been disastrous for the textile and clothing industry, which accounts for 60 per cent of Pakistan’s export revenue and 9pc of its GDP. Garment factories are reported to have terminated the employment of thousands of workers as foreign buyers cancelled or put on hold their shipments. The industry fears many small factories could shut permanently with medium to large factories facing significant losses.
The nation’s exports in April plunged steeply by 54pc to $957 million from a year ago. Textile and clothing exports, which jumped nearly 17pc in February before declining 4.5pc in March, are believed to have suffered massively last month.
“The garment industry has suffered the most in this crisis. In my view, 20-25pc of total production for both domestic and foreign markets is lost permanently. Home textiles and other value-added products will bounce back but it will take years before apparel sales pick up to their pre-Covid-19 level,” argued Mr Jahangir, adding his company was able to save over 500 stitching jobs by opening the new production line for masks.
But textile masks are not the only item that has seen a massive upsurge in demand in the wake of the Covid-19 contagion. The pandemic has also opened up an opportunity for garment exporters in the field of personal protective equipment (PPE). Nishat Mills, along with a few other major garment producers, has got an export contract from an American importer for five million non-disposable, blended textile hospital isolation gowns that can last 30 washes.
Mr Ijaz Khokhar, a sports garments exporter from Sialkot, believed global shortages of masks and other personal protective gear could open new avenues for Pakistan’s struggling textile industry.
“Garment exporters are receiving serious inquiries for millions of pieces of masks, caps, isolation gowns, overalls and other cotton-based protective gear from foreign retailers, governments and militaries every day. This is a big opportunity for us to partially make up for our export losses,” he asserted, calling for the restoration of the zero-rating regime for the textile and clothing exporters.
“The shift to PPE can save thousands of jobs and bolster export revenues. We should not restrict ourselves to manufacturing cotton-based products only. If we start using non-woven materials we may be able to increase our exports faster and fetch more revenue. For this, the government will have to move fast, remove bureaucratic bottlenecks and allow duty-free import of melt-blown materials as Bangladesh has done. We need the prime minister to personally oversee this behavioural change for a faster decision-making process.”
“The growth in global demand for cotton-based protective gear is the biggest opportunity that this pandemic has thrown our way. It’s a vast field. Pakistan is not known for these products. We should take full advantage of this opportunity. If we don’t others will,” Mr Jahangir concluded.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 11th , 2020