Unmasking local innovation

With the world on lockdown, local businesses are innovating to ensure essential products are still available. We celebrate these unsung heroes

The Covid-19 global crisis has changed the world’s narrative forever. There are many heroes in this story – health workers and those who deal with the public on a daily basis to help keep food, essential supplies and services on track. But there are other heroes, who work quietly and tirelessly behind the scenes and are making a big contribution towards a positive outcome for South Africa.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on April 23, 2020, that there would be a slow phasing-out of the national lockdown, he also called on all South Africans to wear masks when they leave home for essential activities, stating that our clothing and textile industries – including many small businesses – are gearing up to produce these masks on a mass scale.

Since 2015, BBF Safety Group has been actively involved in the localisation of components for its Nikki dust mask through supplier-partnership developments. The Group was established in 2014, when four of South Africa’s largest safety footwear manufacturers joined forces.

The merger created the largest safety footwear manufacturer in Africa, with more than 250 years of combined experience, producing more than 4,5 million pairs of footwear a year. In 2017, BBF Safety Group transitioned from being a leading safety footwear manufacturer to an integrated workplace-safety solutions provider.

Today it offers a full portfolio of head-to-toe personal protective equipment (PPE) and professional occupational health and safety services – ranging from auditing and consulting to training and certification.

Realising that there would be an urgent need for quality masks for healthcare professionals as well as the general public, the company upscaled its standard mask production capabilities, while localising previously imported components. In this way, not only is a vital product being locally produced, but the factory is able to guarantee continued and sustainable work for staff and workers.

Since the beginning of the year, Nikki mask production has increased by 75 percent, and plans are in place to further increase capacity by an additional 200 percent in coming months to assist in the supply of critical, preventive PPE and support the reopening of industry.

Silvio Ceriani, BBF Safety Group’s chief executive officer, says: “South Africans have entrepreneurship and innovation in their blood – we are a nation that doesn’t let much stop us and during this crisis, we know we’ll see incredible ideas and collaboration coming to the fore to make a positive difference in our country.”



Although BBF Safety Group was already manufacturing masks as a standard line item, the lockdown in China meant that one essential filtration material, not yet produced locally, was no longer available for import.

Because the factory only had enough stock for four weeks of production, the Group quickly initiated conversations with local manufacturers, as well as government, regarding the adaptation of materials to bring them in line with the filtration specifications and increase local production capacities to meet the new demand.

The government provided excellent incentives for this to happen as quickly as possible. The result is that the FFP2 masks can now be manufactured using 100 percent local fabrics – an innovation that will continue into the future.

Beyond localising materials, BBF Safety Group grew local production by partnering with small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs).

“With the high demand of FFP2 masks, and BBF already manufacturing at maximum capacity, we reached out to our SMME chain, which we have developed over years, to see if we could train up any teams to assist with additional mask production in line with the stringent manufacturing procedures,” explains Deon van Rensburg, BBF Safety Group’s operations manager.

“With the support of government, one of our SMMEs was awarded a temporary sales permit to manufacture FFP2 masks within five days (a process that normally takes around two months), and they were quickly operational and were able to add to the number of masks made weekly.”


Because the World Health Organization and local government determined that FFP2 masks should be reserved for health workers, BBF Safety Group also developed the Nikki reusable mask for general population use. The mask is cloth, made from breathable fabric and comes with a replaceable filter. The Nikki mask is washable and can be used up to 10 times if cared for properly.

In a bid to create a mask that can service the general population and to stem the virus’ spread, the team looked at ways to integrate multiple layers and a filter. The result was a mask that has improved filtration efficiency, minimal breathing resistance and is comfortably lightweight.

“We have worked tirelessly to create solutions that are relevant and effective. The Covid-19 crisis has given the whole world a new appreciation of the value of life and how important it is to look after ourselves and one another,” says Eugene du Toit, innovations manager at BBF Safety Group.

“Our staff have all played an integral part in bringing these new masks and new ways of manufacturing into being and I applaud their efforts and dedication – their incredible perseverance meant we were able to innovate and begin producing within a two-week period, which included the Easter weekend and other public holidays.”

Ceriani adds: “We are so proud of our staff, who fearlessly arrive at work every day. Many of them are scared about the virus and unsure how to keep themselves and their families safe, despite the plethora of health messaging – and yet they still come because they know they are doing important work.”

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