How the women of Un Jour Nouveau turned $500 in fabric into $50,000 in sales — and saved countless lives

Seven women wearinng white aprons model beautiful fabric facemasks.

Months ago, Un Jour Nouveau (UJN), a local community organization in the Congo, was planning to use $500 in capital from ECI to strengthen their dressmaking program, a social enterprise that helps women in North Kivu uplift their communities with training in business, leadership and in-demand skills. UJN planned to use half the money to set up a display of students’ handmade clothing at the 2020 Women Of Congo exhibition, and to use the other $250 to buy fabric and supplies.

As the pandemic overtook their plans, the women’s entrepreneurial agility transformed that $500 grant into infinitely more.

Program director Claudine Nshokano explains: “With materials we bought before the pandemic, we had already made a profit of $255. But when we noticed that our clients weren’t interested in buying clothes because of the COVID-19 crisis, we pivoted to making fabric masks. Individuals, businesses and organizations quickly came to us to stock up. The ONG BENAFENACE bought 120 masks for $1 each. Then we won the contract to make 50,000 masks for MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo, to distribute between now and June. We hired 50 dressmakers, 47 women and three men, to work tirelessly in order to produce an order of that size. And if all goes well, we will deliver another order of 50,000 right after that.”

These will be no ordinary masks. The women in the UJN program are training to be dressmakers, so they bought fabric for dresses. Soon, people in the Congo will be wearing what might be the most beautiful coronavirus masks in the world. “At a time like this, a little bit of beauty can make a profound difference in someone’s life,” says ECI executive director Abraham Leno. “I am very proud of what Un Jour Nouveau has done, and I am honored we could be part of their work.” 

A victory for public health

The benefits of UJN’s agile pivot from dressmaking to mask-making are immense. 

Most importantly, tens of thousands of people in Congo will have masks to wear when they have to be around others — potentially preventing hundreds of thousands of new COVID-19 infections. 

“In Congo and all over the world, it’s now recommended to use masks to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus without knowing it from transmitting it to others. Masks are useful in public settings like busy  marketplaces where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” says ECI medical coordinator Johny Muhindo, M.D. “Having those reusable masks help prevent the shortage of professional masks reserved for healthcare workers. These masks will absolutely save lives wherever people wear them.”

A triumph of social enterprise

Masks are only part of how Un Jour Nouveau is contributing to the national pandemic response. A manufacturing startup called LUNOC, incubated in UJN’s entrepreneurship program, will provide 2500 bottles of liquid soap for MONUSCO’s sanitation efforts. Un Jour Nouveau will also provide 200 hand washing facilities throughout North Kivu. 

The masks, though, are special. Beyond their incalculable benefits to public health, UJN’s pivot to mask-making has done something just as important: With skill, courage and business acumen, the women in the dressmaking program turned a $500 grant into more than 100 times more in sales. 

That kind of profitability would be an impressive achievement for any small business. But for the women of Un Jour Nouveau, it means much more than just a happier balance sheet. “This work is leading to greater profitability for our dressmaking workshop,” Claudine says. “But above all, it helps the women in precarious economic situations — military widows, combat veterans, women living with HIV — who do the work.” 

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