ABC News Corona Virus Health and Science

This woman in Ghana is helping to protect front-line workers, 1 face mask at a time

Her reusable cloth face masks are certified to help protect against COVID-19.

LONDON -- When the coronavirus pandemic reached Ghana and a partial lockdown was imposed in the West African nation at the end of March, Nana Yaa Ofori-Atta sought to protect her loved ones and fellow citizens.

"I was concerned for myself and my family. We couldn't really go out but you needed to sometimes," Ofori-Atta, 49, told ABC News in a recent telephone interview from her home in Accra.

A friend recommended another local businesswoman who had a manufacturing team that could scale up production. Ofori-Atta soon had some 1,500 masks, most of which she donated to doctors, nurses and others who desperately needed personal protective equipment.

"The lockdown was an extremely difficult time for many people here in Ghana," she said. "People who are considered essential workers did have to go to work and, just as in many other countries, there was concern about protection of front-line workers."

Ofori-Atta recalled a few times during the lockdown when she was driving through the densely populated capital and happened to have extra masks in her car, which she handed out to any police officers she passed by. She also gave masks to staff at one of her favorite local restaurants.

"They were always grateful," she said.

The three-week lockdown was lifted in Ghana at the end of April as the economic ramifications became unbearable for much of the population who are daily wage earners in the informal sector. Nonessential businesses were allowed to reopen, but all residents must wear a face mask whenever they leave their home and before entering public places to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"We can’t afford to be sick, we're a very small country," said Ofori-Atta, whose brother currently serves as the finance minister. "So we’ve got a different approach."

Whenever Ofori-Atta wore her creations in public, she noticed that people would often stop her to say that they liked her mask and to ask where she had gotten it from. So she started a company called Heritage Masks, producing and selling bespoke, reusable cloth masks that are certified by Ghana's Food and Drugs Authority to help protect against COVID-19.

The design and production process is a meticulous one -- it takes about five to 10 working days from start to finish, Ofori-Atta said. The masks are made from three layers, per the standard set by Ghana's Food and Drugs Authority. The first is an external layer made of 100% cotton, which can be colored or patterned. The second is an inner layer, called a "stiffener," that helps to keep the mold of the mask. The final layer, which is inward-facing, must be white and 100% cotton, according to Ofori-Atta.

Each mask must come above the wearer's nose and below the chin. The ear piece on the mask is also customized to comfortably fit the individual, she said.

"The idea is to make this as safe and as comfortable as possible so people are not continually touching their faces and adjusting the mask," Ofori-Atta said. "This is very important, so we spend a lot of time sampling the client."

All the materials for Heritage Masks are sourced from local markets and factories, while production is contracted out to a small network of manufacturers in Accra who have sewing machines and trained workers. Ofori-Atta said she visits the various sites once or twice a day to oversee the process.

Although her company now mostly makes customized masks for corporate and private clients, Ofori-Atta has continued to donate to front-line workers.

"We didn’t get into the business of masks to make money," she said. "We simply started out by wanting to help."

Last month, Heritage Masks gave around 600 masks to a hospital in Ghana’s Eastern Region, where Ofori-Atta is from. She said "giving from a social distance" in the time of coronavirus has been an interesting experience.

"Ghanaians are very warm and usually they need a hug," she said with a laugh. "But no, no, no, everybody stay back."

The Ghanaian government recently retooled some local factories so that personal protective equipment for front-line workers can be produced locally, which Ofori-Atta said has "taken the pressure off considerably."

The World Health Organization has warned that Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people, could become the next epicenter of the global pandemic, which would pose an immense challenge for the region's already strained health systems. All 54 African nations have now reported COVID-19 cases and around half have detected community transmission of the virus, concentrated mainly in major cities.

Africa, however, is currently the least-affected region globally in terms of the number of reported COVID-19 cases and fatalities. The continent has just 1.5% of the world's reported cases and less than 0.1% of the world's deaths.

"Of course, these numbers don’t paint the full picture," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at Monday's press briefing in Geneva. "Testing capacity in Africa is still being ramped up and there is a likelihood that some cases may be missed."

"But even so, Africa appears to have so far been spared the scale of outbreaks we have seen in other regions," he added. "Africa’s knowledge and experience of suppressing infectious diseases has been critical to rapidly scaling up an agile response to COVID-19."

Ghana has emerged as an early success story, with its aggressive testing and contact tracing. Since Ghana reported its first case of COVID-19 in mid-March, more than 7,300 people there have been diagnosed with the disease and over 2,400 have since recovered while just 34 have died, according to a count kept by the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In April, the Ghanaian government recalibrated 100 small labs across the nation previously used for tuberculosis testing so that they now have the capacity to test for COVID-19. The country of 31 million people has conducted over 205,000 tests for COVID-19, one of the highest rates in Africa. For comparison, Nigeria, which has a population nearly seven times the size of Ghana's, has carried out fewer than 49,000 tests, according to data from the Africa CDC.

"If you know the size of your problem, then you can attempt to find a solution," Ofori-Atta said.

Prior to starting Heritage Masks, Ofori-Atta's career traversed the fields of journalism, teaching and consultancy.

In 2013, a decade after she had returned home to Ghana following the completion of her studies abroad, Ofori-Atta founded Heritage Project, through which she publishes books and produces documentaries. Her current projects have been halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The books and documentaries all embody a Ghana theme, just like the face masks.

"I insist on culture, heritage and identify in everything I do," she said. "There must be a Ghanaian element."

ABC News' Bruno Roeber contributed to this report.

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map