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In less than a month, Family Mask was ready to tackle the growing global face mask shortage
It’s been four months since fears of the novel coronavirus building in China first began to penetrate Hong Kong’s bubble. At the time, this city of 7 million, most of whom are old enough to remember the way in which an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) ravaged the city in 2003, acted quickly to purchase surgical masks, cleaning chemicals and more.
Within days, the city was empty of Dettol, disinfectant wipes, toilet paper, dry foods, and most importantly, Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE. Queues of hundreds waited outside pharmacies to purchase boxes of the all-important masks, and price gouging ensued with ferocity, with reports of people paying as much as HK$400 (US$51.60) per box.
Luckily for Hong Kongers, the shortages didn’t last long. Within a few chaotic weeks, masks were back in stores. This was largely due to the efforts of manufacturers, who faced sharply rising raw material costs and logistics roadblocks to get their products where they were needed most.
One such manufacturer was Family Mask, a venture started in January by Founder and CEO Jessie Chung.
“I actually went out to try to get ahold of some face masks just for my own friends and family, and the staff at my parents’ companies, and then I found it nearly impossible to get hold of a reasonable face mask,” Chung says.
A passionate believer in equality, sustainability, and community, Chung saw the critical shortages of masks taking over Hong Kong’s health system and decided it was time to step in. She registered Family Mask as a new business in Hong Kong and, with the purpose of seeking the most speed- and cost- efficient solution, began looking into manufacturers in Shenzhen, a Chinese manufacturing hub just north of Hong Kong.
With the right network and a stroke of luck, Chung’s team was able to locate a factory with a ‘ISO-grade clean room’ – the part of a factory clear of dust or pollutants usually used for manufacturing medical equipment – within a week, and secondhand machinery within three days, getting the factory up and running in no time. By February, the manufacturing line was rolling out masks, and Family Mask started selling in Hong Kong and China.
Chung says she named the business Family Mask as a reminder to people of what’s important right now – looking out for one another, and wearing masks to protect each other. In that vein of thinking, when Tung Wah Hospitals Group reached out in desperate need of anti-epidemic supplies donations for frontline staff, Chung readily stepped up to the cause.
“We couldn’t just watch them and say, ‘I’m sorry, can’t help.’ We just tried our best to do what we can,” she says.
But the epidemic was rapidly becoming a pandemic, and other parts of the world were equally in need of protective equipment. With a team of only around 20, retailing globally was a daunting process.
“I have friends and family abroad, and they’re telling me everyday we need masks, we need masks, we cannot get hold of any masks at all. So I knew the demand was there, but with our small team we weren’t able to work on such a big scale globally. That’s why we partnered up with MxA, who has the expertise and the IT support to do it,” says Chung.
Chung began to look into ways that she could send masks out of Greater China – elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, the Americas – and in the process, met and partnered with MXA and GOLS, two impact enterprises in the logistics technology and supply chain space out of Hong Kong.
Fian Lau, Founder of both companies, says that the key to keeping up lines of shipping was quick action. Early on in the crisis, Lau briefed her team on what to expect, what documents they were likely to need, and how to maintain efficient deliveries. It was this quick thinking, and a long history of experience in this industry, that proved to suit Family Mask perfectly.
“[COVID-19] demanded a very quick reaction because of the demand for face masks in the world,” says Chung. “That’s why we partnered up with GOLS – just to supply the amount of demand we have all over the world, we needed an in-house logistics solution that could react quickly enough.”
Unfortunately, despite the speed with which Family Mask came together and initiated all these projects, obstacles cropped up one by one. Chief among them was the rising cost of raw materials and freight. Freight prices in particular were impossibly volatile. Chung compares shipping nowadays to the stock market. On top of that, it soon became extremely difficult to buy raw materials.
“People don’t understand how difficult it is to get hold of raw materials and machinery and you know, everything related to PPE right now. It’s basically close to impossible to get a hold of those things,” she says. She adds that Family Mask is determined to keep prices stable as far as possible, even if that means having days when profits are negative.
Going forward, Chung is working on opening a Hong Kong factory, which will enable her to be more active in the research and development process. The facility will also be used to try out new styles of masks and packaging.
Family Mask has been making donations to hospitals, foundations and organizations, and various initiatives across the globe, including the United Nations, the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Community, and Skoll Foundation. This demonstrates the company’s ongoing commitment to the three UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the core to its mission – Good Health and Well-Being, Gender Equality, and Sustainable Consumption and Production.
“2020 is the Decade of Action for the SDGs. Thanks to Kenneth Kwok, Family Mask’s Co-Founder, our story has been able to reach an international audience. We must rectify the damage which has arisen from humans mistreating the environment, animals and ourselves, and create a path of impact and sustainability for our next-generation,” says Chung.
“I really want to bring out the message that we have to be more sustainable to the environment, and that it’s important to have equality in the world.”
Header image by Nayantara Bhat