When rivals become partners: 1 million masks, 12,000 protective outfits, 60 days


Three Western Ukrainian participants in a cluster development programme supported by the EBRD and the EU4Business initiative re-oriented production to help with the pandemic—and saved jobs, too.

During the two months of Ukraine’s quarantine and lockdown, three garment-making clusters in Western Ukraine were able to achieve this: 100% of jobs saved, 1 million protective masks and 12,000 protective outfits for medics and the public, a volunteer campaign and many creative ideas.

In Ukraine’s western oblasts, every tenth woman works in the sewing industry. Hundreds of SMEs make clothing and footwear, mostly for export. But with the industry so densely represented in this one region, competition keeps the vast majority of these small firms from growing. Many countries have found that the solution to this kind of challenge is clustering. Companies that make similar products or offer related services combine their resources and production capacities within a given region. This makes it possible, using combined resources, to jointly take on more and bigger orders and to participate in key industry exhibitions, as the companies can share the costs of participation, which are typically too high for individual small-scale manufacturers.

Joining forces with one-time rivals

Today, the cities of Lviv and Khmelnytskyi both have several thriving garment-making clusters. Two of them, the Podillya Women’s Apparel Cluster and the Podillya Wedding Group, were set up in 2019 as part of the “Support for Cluster Initiatives in the Textile Sector” project, supported by the EBRD and the EU4Business initiative. A third participant has since joined: the Western Ukrainian Fashion Industry Cluster of Lviv, which was established back in 2016.

In 2018, the owners, managers and directors of garment-makers came together for the first time during a workshop presented by Ifor Ffowcs-Williams, a well-known expert on cluster development methodology. Yesterday’s competitors began to talk to each other and slowly communication became open enough to share information about their suppliers. In the end, two clusters were organized in Khmelnytskyi: the Podillya Wedding Group of 7 enterprises that made wedding apparel and the Podillya Women’s Apparel Cluster of 20 makers of women’s apparel. During the workshop, an existing cluster joined the programme: the Western Ukrainian Fashion Industry Cluster, which includes 40 Ukrainian fashion brands.

With EBRD and EU4Business support, our cluster has become one of the strongest among makers of women’s apparel in Ukraine,” says Dmytro Vasylenko, manager of the Podillya Women’s Apparel Cluster and New Economic Policy, an NGO that works with the EBRD and EU4Business to implement the cluster project in the region. “In 2018, we participated in a major fashion show, Kyiv Fashion, as the first cluster in the 18-year history of the exhibition. Our joint stand was 40 sq m. Just a year later, in 2019, our cluster occupied an unprecedented 120 sq m and was one of the largest exhibition areas at the show.

At the time of Ffowcs-Williams’s workshop, we were already a registered cluster,” notes Yuriy Samets, manager of the Western Ukrainian Fashion Industry Cluster and co-owner of the company that makes Sambai shirts—which is in the cluster. “We put together a website and attended national and international fashion shows. We obtained expert advice on how to develop business processes and communication within the cluster.”

Because of the pandemic and changing priorities, two thirds of enterprises in these clusters have re-oriented production to sew face masks and protective outfits for medics.

Responding to the COVID-19 crisis

Since the beginning of quarantine, roughly 50% of SMEs across Ukraine have been forced to suspend their business operations as orders and cashflow dropped off drastically. As a result, many Ukrainians found themselves unemployed. Meanwhile, the need for facial masks was suddenly Topic #1 during the first week, when the press began to notice that doctors and nurses were taking care of patients without any PPE or personal protective equipment.

“We had a choice: stop production and lay people off, or come up with new ideas about how we could be useful during the quarantine,” recalls Yuriy Samets. “We decided together to go with the second option.”

The cluster’s business owners turned to the Mayor of Lviv with an offer to support city hospitals with much-needed masks and protective outfits.

"It was our chance to save our employees’ jobs,” says Samets. “We started with orders to sew masks for hospitals. Five enterprises in our cluster reprofiled production solely to make protective masks. We’ve already made 180,000. Shortly afterwards, we completed an order for special clothing for doctors. In just two weeks, 9 of our factories produced 9,000 outfits.

We understood what was coming when we looked at our partners in China,” explains Kateryna Markovska, manager of the Podillya Wedding Group Cluster and owner of Victoria Soprano, a member of the cluster. “They asked us to send facial masks together with our wedding outfits. At the very beginning of the quarantine, surgical masks disappeared from the shelves at our pharmacies. We began to make masks for city hospitals in Khmelnytskiy and the orders began to grow and grow. At this point, we’ve produced 300,000 masks and 3,000 protective outfits for doctors.”

14 small enterprises from our cluster are focusing on mask production,” says Dmytro Vasylenko. “For the moment, their main production has partly stopped and highly professional seamstresses are handling basic stitchwork. But they have a job, a salary, and the knowledge that they’re doing something that really matters. In some cases, a firm of 10 workers has been producing 10,000 masks a day. That’s how much demand we faced from local government agencies, utility companies and village councils. The result is that our cluster has made 700,000 masks already.”

Talented volunteers: Sewing by night, giving away by day

Alina Sadova’s microbusiness is one of the companies in the Podillya Women’s Apparel Cluster. Before the quarantine, her private micro business made and rented costumes. Sadova was the only designer and seamstress for these costumes. The quarantine ground her business to halt because of restrictions on public gatherings. These days, she is putting her creative energy into designing and manufacturing original, fashionable masks. She spends her nights sewing, while her days are devoted to giving away these masks among her friends and those who wish to have a stylish protective accessory.

Alina isn’t doing this for money: “I can’t take money for them. I want to create an interesting design so that the person will enjoy wearing it and forget about problems for a moment. This is my way of being helpful and bringing joy.”

Kateryna Markovska of the Podillya Wedding Group Cluster remembers how, at the beginning of the quarantine, some of the cluster’s business owners were working as volunteers, giving away masks at bus stops to anyone who wanted one. Already then, it was impossible to buy one at a pharmacy. For every thousand masks that hospitals order from her company, Victoria Soprano, she adds another 200-300 for free. These masks are being sewn by trainees, young women who agreed to work for free, even during the crisis.

Having met for the first time as competitors at a workshop on cluster development, 70 firms have formed 3 powerful clusters over the course of two years with the support of the EBRD and EU4Business initiative. And during this crisis period, they have furnished 1 million of Ukrainians with masks and 12,000 doctors with protective outfits. Something to be proud of, indeed!