An entrepreneurial couple in Ethiopia is doing their part to help slow the spread of Covid-19 in their community through a new business venture—TKBD Medical Supplies. Over the last two decades, Elias Ketema, a captain and a pilot instructor with Ethiopian Airlines, and his wife Tseday have built three successful businesses that together employ roughly 2000 people—a chain of premium coffee shops, three five-star Italian restaurants and an award-winning dairy business.
When Covid-19 hit and lockdowns began, like most businesses they were greatly impacted, with business dropping as low as 85% below their normal operations. Face masks, recommended as one of the key solutions to help keep people safe during the pandemic, were in dire short supply. “As business people, we felt compelled to come up with a solution,” recalls Captain Ketema. “Local manufacturing of face masks was a strong business case to explore.”
TKBD placed an order for its first mask machine, and while they were looking for suppliers of meltblown nonwovens, they realized the material was very expensive and also in short supply. “This short supply spearheaded a great opportunity to manufacture and sell meltblown to meet our business needs and to supply other local and regional customers,” he says.
The fact that there was very little production of meltblown on the continent, especially in East Africa, also made the investment in a new line an attractive business opportunity.
TKBD worked with Handas Consulting of South Africa, which provided a feasibility study for manufacturing meltblown locally. “The study proved the regional need for the material,” Captain Ketema explains. “We also quickly realized that the meltblown project came with significantly more complexity than the face masks business, hence we quickly got a project team of experts together and the project is progressing very well and we are very much on target with our plans for the meltblown line.”
TKBD’s project lead, Excelsior, has worked with the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia, and more recently on projects around personal protective equipment (PPE). The business is located in Kilinto Industrial Park, where several global pharmaceutical companies are also located.
In mid-September, TKBD started rolling out its first batch of face masks from the production line, which has a capacity of 100 masks per hour. The company focuses on the development of surgical masks, which are being used by the general public, and are comprised of spunbond outer layers with inner meltblown layers. The masks meet the Ethiopian Food and Drug Administration standards, which are harmonized with the European and American standards.
Another goal for TKBD is to make sure that it can offer protection for medical frontline workers. For that reason it is ensuring that the new meltblown machine it is installing can meet the N95 standards as legislated in Ethiopia, Europe and the U.S. “We want to be a significant player in the face mask and meltblown space in Ethiopia and the rest of the African continent,” Captain Ketema states. “We have ambitions to export beyond the African continent. For that reason we are very particular about our selection of suppliers for meltblown currently and the meltblown equipment suppliers that we are discussing with. We know that quality is critical and central to the industry that we are in and we intend to respect those standards.”
Once the meltblown line comes onstream, TKBD will consume some of the production internally, but it also plans to supply the local market. Captain Ketema says the local market on its own is quite significant. “Many new face mask manufacturers have emerged in the last eight to 10 months, and we certainly plan to service them and save them and the country as a whole on lead times, raw material cost and foreign currency.”
TKBD also has plans to export the material within Africa, including North Africa. And because its manufacturing standards will meet European and U.S. standards, it is also preparing to export globally.
TKBD expects its first meltblown line to be operational by the first quarter of 2021.