Iowa State’s Uganda Program Tailors Face Masks, New Skills During Pandemic

July 16th, 2020

By Ann Y. Robinson

Ugandan women sewing under open air tent
Ugandan mothers making reusable face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, with resources provided by the ISU-Uganda Program. Photos courtesy of the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods.

A set of sewing machines is being repurposed as a public health tool in Uganda during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the resourcefulness of Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL) at Iowa State University staff and donors.

Using the sewing machines to create face masks is just one of the ways CSRL’s ISU-Uganda Program (ISU-UP) staff members are finding to support communities in their district during the pandemic, while continuing to support job skill development and education.

The idea to make the face marks started with Karen Kolschowsky, the original donor of the sewing machines, according to CSRL Associate Director Gail Nonnecke, Global Professor in global resource systems. The treadle machines, purchased in Uganda, are common in rural Africa where electricity is scarce. They were being used to make washable, sanitary pads for older girls, which helps keep them in school. The additional need for face masks became clear after the pandemic forced suspension of schools, commerce and transportation nationwide in March.

“Masks were required in public spaces throughout the country for all citizens over six years old,” said Dr. Gideon Nadiope, national director of the ISU-Uganda Program.  “They are in high demand, and many Ugandans have a hard time affording them.”

The CSRL team acted quickly. Nonnecke was able to redirect some funding to buy supplies, using private support that wasn’t going to be needed for the program’s summer internship program, canceled for 2020 due to COVID-19. The Kolschowsky family and other donors pitched in with additional funds.  

In Uganda, the ISU-UP staff pivoted. Six of the machines were shifted to mask-making at locations that accommodated social distancing. The team consulted with the national Ministry of Health to create a pattern for the reusable, cloth face coverings that would meet the country’s health guidelines. More supplies were purchased locally.

So far, six mothers and eight girls have been trained to make the masks, according to Miriam Namata, ISU-UP Community Innovations Officer. Her small cadre of tailors began fashioning masks in June and have already distributed about 450 masks in the local area.



A Ugandan pupil displays a finished face mask made to help her community during the pandemic, with resources from the ISU-UP program.

Some masks are being provided to the girls and mothers involved in the program and their families, Namata said. Others are being given to low-income households or sold at a subsidized price. Some of the funds will be used to help pay families’ school fees and support a Youth Entrepreneurship Program led by ISU-UP.

“This effort has been very successful, and we have been approached by several parents who would like their children to be involved. We are considering the possibility of purchasing more sewing machines,” Namata said.

Expanding skills, serving needs

As the pandemic continues, the masks will help protect the area from spread of the coronavirus while they, like the rest of the world, await a vaccine. The team is also discussing other needs the sewing machines could help meet, such as making lower-cost school uniforms for students where, for some low-income families, the required attire can be an obstacle to education.  

The ISU-Uganda Program has also launched a soap-making project to help fight spread of COVID-19, said Namata, who is also helping lead that effort. Two groups of mothers and youth are making laundry and hand soap locally to make it more available, both as a source of hygiene and as a source of income.

Dr. Nadiope said his staff continues to serve the communities of the Kamuli district and find opportunities within this bad situation.

“Even after the pandemic, we believe the groups we are working with will be able to turn their new knowledge into skills, and their skills into opportunities to better sustain themselves and to serve as great role models in their communities,” he said.

The ISU-UP team’s new initiatives, launched in response to the pandemic, include providing educational materials and counseling for youth to encourage them to keep up with their studies during the extended school closures.  They have also organized special deliveries of grain and fortified flour to help feed vulnerable households and managed the boring  of two new wells to increase availability of water for handwashing and other purposes.  

“The responsiveness and can-do attitude of the ISU-UP staff are so impressive,” Nonnecke said.

She adds that all the funds being used are from private donations specifically to the Uganda Program, within the terms of those gifts. “We deeply appreciate our donors’ commitment to the people with whom we work in Uganda.”

About the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods,

The Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods at Iowa State University was established in 2004, with the aim of improving the livelihoods of rural people to alleviate food insecurity and poverty. Its programs have become a model for university programs in low-income countries and an inspiration for students to address global hunger and poverty. The ISU center has impacted thousands of lives through programs that help rural Ugandans gain skills in farming practices, nutrition, sanitation and income-generating and entrepreneurial opportunities. It also has provided service-learning opportunities for hundreds of students from Iowa State and Makerere University of Uganda. Contributions to support the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihood programs in Uganda can be made here