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This Woman Stopped Making Dresses and Started Sewing Masks to Help Fight COVID in DRC

 All photos by David Mutua/CARE

 All photos by David Mutua/CARE

As of September 2021, Françoise Mbweki had made 1,000 masks to help protect her community.

Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, stretched health systems, and destroyed economies and livelihoods. The Democratic Republic of Congo was not spared and on April 6, 2020, cities across the country went into lockdown following border closures with surrounding nations.

This had a devastating effect on the country. According to the World Bank, an estimated 73% of people live on less than $1.90 a day in the DRC. The lockdown blocked many women working in informal businesses like food vendors, seamstresses, and grocers from accessing markets where they get their supplies. At the same time, health experts advised people to wear face masks to stem the spread of the disease. But in a country where many people have difficulty getting their next meal, procuring surgical masks was a challenge.

In Goma, seamstress Françoise Mbweki, who had seen a decline in her trade, reinvented her business to meet an essential community need. “I noted that the disposable [masks] are expensive. One surgical mask costs 500CF ($0.25), which you use, dispose of, then buy another one. I saw that my people were interested in a fabric mask because this one is reusable. With these face masks, one can use, wash, then reuse them. That’s why I saw fit to start making fabric masks and people love them so much,” Françoise says.

Françoise Mbweki hard at work making a mask in Goma, DRC. Françoise, who used to focus on making dresses, reinvented her business at the start of the pandemic to focus on face masks. It takes her about 30 minutes to make one face mask.

Access to a steady income, let alone capital to run a business, was not always possible for Françoise. But joining a local savings group, known as an AVEC, changed that reality. “Before, I used to depend on my husband for everything from matchboxes to salt and water for the home. When I heard about it [the savings group], I knew it was a good thing that would help me in the future to be able to save and generate my capital investment. Through AVEC, I become self-dependent,” Françoise says.

In an AVEC, members pool their savings into a shared fund that is tapped to provide loans with interest to members to help build wealth among participants. Since joining, Françoise has become the group’s secretary and also works as a village agent in charge of overseeing other groups in her network.

“I would advise women who do not have jobs and depend on their husbands to join AVECs. They can save and take out a loan that is three times their investment and start their own business selling farm produce. This way they can help their husbands in generating income for their homes,” she says.

In addition to savings groups, AVECs offer training in leadership, financial management, fighting gender-based violence, and advocacy, and provide psychological support all of which have been critical throughout the pandemic.

“With the production of masks and the manufacture of soaps and disinfectants, women served as a platform of awareness to fight against the pandemic of COVID-19,” says Prudence Ndeze, CARE DRC’s Project Officer for the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment (GEWEP) project.

“With the production of masks and the manufacture of soaps and disinfectants, women served as a platform of awareness to fight against the pandemic of COVID-19.”

Thanks to AVEC, Françoise was not only able to provide for her family, but also play a part in the fight against COVID-19 in her community. “Making these masks enabled community members to get easy access to masks.”

As of September 2021, Françoise had made over 1,000 masks and sold 850. She also teaches others how to make them. Françoise continues to help educate the community on the importance of masks in preventing the spread of the disease.

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