Bashundhara Group had set up a surgical mask unit more than half a decade ago. But the group dismantled the unit, keeping only a small machine in operation, after three years because of a poor response from buyers for masks.
Now, that small machine is running round the clock and producing 20,000 face masks a day. But the number is too small to meet the demand that has skyrocketed since the detection of the first Covid-19 case in Bangladesh on March 8.
Pran-RFL Group, another big conglomerate, started making masks, syringes and gloves two years ago, but the business was solely confined with hospitals and clinics.
Before the Covid-19 hit the country, the group used to produce 15,000 masks per day, which has gone up to 1.2 lakh pieces now.
This is how the coronavirus pandemic has opened up a new business opportunity for some companies in the country when almost all sectors are struggling for survival.
Nearly a dozen garment factories have also started manufacturing masks and personal protective equipment, but most of them are for exports and donations to hospitals.
Two other companies – Promixco Group and JMI – are engaged in medical equipment manufacturing for years. Of the products they made, sales of masks were the lowest compared to those of syringe, gloves, and some other medical products.
Promixco used to produce nearly 3,000 masks a day before the Covid-19 pandemic made inroads in the country, and now they make 20,000 pieces a day in three shifts, meaning that the factory runs round the clock.
"I'll expand our mask unit as the demand for the product may stay there for years," said Moushumi Islam, managing director of Promixco that is in the medical equipment business for nearly two decades.
Mask has become an essential commodity in the pandemic time as its use can reduce the spread of the deadly virus significantly, according to many studies.
Just three days ago, a research finding by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, revealed that infection got down significantly when mask-wearing was made mandatory in Northern Italy on April 6 and in New York city on April 17 – the two areas of the world hit the hardest by the virus.
The report found that this protective measure alone brought down the number of infections - over 78,000 in Italy between April 6 and May 9 and over 66,000 in New York between April 17 and May 9.
As the Covid-19 positive cases are rising fast in Bangladesh, on May 30, the government also made wearing of masks mandatory for the citizens while stepping out of their homes. So, the demand for face masks has gone up further.
There is no exact data on the market size of masks. But industry insiders gave a calculation taking the number of total population into account.
There are 17 crore people in the country. If 5 crore of them are children, the remaining 12 crore adults require masks when they go outside. But given the present pandemic context, it is assumed that most of the women are confined to their homes, so the remaining 6 crore adult male need masks.
"If they use one mask a month, the demand will be 6 crore pieces per month," said Naseemul Hye, senior executive director of Bashundhara Group.
According to Kamruzzaman Kamal, marketing director of Pran-RFL Group, the market size should be much larger as a surgical mask is for single use only.
"One mask can be used for 4 hours to 6 hours. It is not for repeated use," said Kamal.
Asif Ashraf, managing director of Urmi Group, which is one of the few garment makers that began producing masks recently, said his factory is making 6,000 to 8,000 pieces of masks per day, but those are for exports only.
Sudden demand pushes prices up
"The masks were Tk5 a piece when I used to buy a packet of 50 units before the Covid-19," said a biker who uses masks for the last few years.
But that same mask was selling at Tk100 a piece in March when the coronavirus planted its first footprint in the country.
When some local companies started production and some others boosted imports to cash in on the surge in demand, prices began to cool down and companies set the maximum retail price (MRP) at Tk30 a piece.
But that price is also very high, according to the drug administration authorities who later sat with the local producers last week of May and reset the MRP at Tk22.
Quality remains a big concern
It is not a garment product, rather a medical product that requires quality control and approval from the Directorate of Drug Administration.
Surgical masks are made with non-woven fabrics. These disposable masks with two filter layers are effective at filtering out particles such as bacteria above one micron. The filtration level of a mask depends on the fiber, the way it is made, the web's structure, and the fiber's cross-sectional shape. Masks are made on a machine line that assembles the nonwovens from bobbins, ultrasonically welds the layers together, and stamps the masks with nose strips, ear loops, and other pieces. A finished mask is then sterilised before being sent out of the factory.
"So, how can a company without any experience produce surgical masks?" questioned Moushumi Islam of Promixco.
Ashraf Hossain, former president of an association of traders and importers of medical equipment at BMA Bhaban Market, is also concerned about the quality of masks being used now.
"There is no quality control and people are not well aware of it. As masks have become an essential product, the government should do everything to ensure quality," said Ashraf.