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SA firm to export 20 million masks to China

You wouldn't be blamed for thinking you were walking into a library when entering the manufacturing plant of Universal Safety Products in Laudium, Pretoria.

It is absolutely quiet. No sound of a machine and no dust in the air, just workers quietly moving around like students in a library.

But this is no academic institution. It is a face masks manufacturing plant that has shot into the limelight.

When entering the plant, the section that actually produces the face masks is secluded from the rest of the factory. It has its own roof and windows. The outer area has packaging boxes and other material but where the masks are produced is a super-clean environment, with pressurised air, and the workers are dressed like police forensic investigators.

Before they enter this secluded area, the workers go through two doors which ensure that they are clean to start their work. These entrances blow wind on the worker, removing any dust that they could have on them.

Universal Safety Products has caught the attention of international buyers as it produces one of the best face masks on the global market. So good are the face masks that the owners of the business, Jordean Eksteen and David Molosankwe, donated 30,000 of them to the Chinese government and it immediately said it wanted to buy more.

Eksteen, 32, and Molosankwe, 33, met as students while studying at the University of Pretoria over a decade ago.

They started their businesses separately and later joined forces to supply safety wear such as boots, overalls, gloves and hard hats.

These university dropout students then decided to focus on face masks as demand was high and they are not reusable. It took them five years to develop the plant and get it to where it is today.

With the help of a German company that specialises in filtering media used on the masks, the two opened the plant in 2018 with just four workers. Today, they employ 60 youth, mostly black women from the nearby townships.

Eksteen said by the end of this month, there will be 80 workers and by the end of next month 100 are expected to be working at the plant as more machines will be bought.

The Chinese have expressed interest in buying 20-million of the masks.

"We are confident of our product," Eksteen said. "It can beat any other product in the world. We believe our product can outperform anyone in the market.

"We focus on the continent."

The company produces face masks designed for different fields such as mining, the petrochemical industry, power generation, agriculture and normal home use.

"A dust mask was seen as a box-tick item. Companies produced dust masks for the entry level and never considered the kind of environment in which the product will be used," Eksteen said.

"We are working with the National Institute for Occupational Health to get the first actual dimension for the African face to manufacture a mask that will suit 99% of the African faces.

"Everything that is in the market currently is made for a Caucasian face. But we see ourselves as an African business that represents the continent globally."

Universal Safety Products tried to ensure that the product is comfortable for the worker to wear from the time they put it on until the last minute of a 12-hour shift.

"If you work under strenuous conditions for that long, the mask must be comfortable. Our filter media does not clock," said Eksteen.

Molosankwe said they worked hard to ensure that the plant was super clean.

"You do not want to contaminate the product. You want the product to be manufactured in the highest and cleanest environment possible," he said.

"You cannot contaminate your product with dust because it is supposed to protect you from dust."

The company focuses on employing youth between the ages of 18 and 29, an age group where finding employment is quite tough.

Between one million and 1.3-million units are produced a month and the plant operates 24 hours a day, in shifts, to meet the growing demand. Masks are being exported to Southern, East and West Africa.

Eksteen and Molosankwe have developed a system that enables them to track production per minute and quickly identify where delays are happening.

The FFP2 mask which impressed the Chinese, has a unique one-way valve that allows carbon dioxide to leave, giving extra comfort.

The company is currently developing another specialist dust mask that is specifically designed for tuberculosis.

All that the two Pretoria entrepreneurs want to see is to represent the continent globally with their product and make a dent in the high youth unemployment rate.

"We want to grow so that we can employ more youth," Eksteen said.

"Unemployment is such a huge problem in our country and we want to play our part in developing skills among the youth and making an impact through our business."

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