From high fashion in New York to providing solutions to Kathmandu’s pollution

Kathmandu , June 3rd 2019

Tashi Gyalzen Sherpa never leaves home without his palm-sized air pollution monitoring device. On his iPhone, he has four apps that give him timely updates on the level of air pollution in Kathmandu and in major cities around the world. Ever since he launched Metro-Mask in 2015, a high-tech anti-pollution mask designed in Nepal and manufactured in China, Sherpa says he has become fixated with air pollution.

“In my family circle, I am known as the guy who can’t stop talking about anti-pollution masks and air pollution,” says Sherpa.

But for a graduate of Fashion Merchandising Management from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, pollution wasn’t always on his radar. After living in the US for nine years, he returned to Kathmandu in 2009, and started dabbling in the local garment and retail industry. The idea of designing an anti-pollution mask, he says, only took shape after he joined ANTA Nepal, a franchise of the Chinese sports brand Anta, in 2011.

“My role at ANTA Nepal required me to travel a lot around the city to inspect locations for new stores and oversee construction work at stores that were being set up,” says Sherpa. “I did most of my travelling on motorcycles, and that exposed me to a lot of dust and pollution.”

With Kathmandu’s oppressive dust and pollution, Sherpa’s allergies flared up, and when he couldn’t find any reliable anti-pollution masks in the city, he began toying with the idea of creating his own, and so started researching filters and fabrics for masks. “I was pretty confident that I’d be able to successfully bring my idea to fruition,” says Sherpa.

That confidence was the result of his years of experience working for retail brands like Tiffany & Co, Perry Ellis, and SAKS Fifth Avenue, all in New York, in diverse roles such as designers’ assistant, product development assistant, merchandise assistant, and analyst.

“Working for these brands exposed me to the highest working standards and gave me in-depth knowledge on everything from researching raw materials and working with designers and vendors to analysing the performance of different stores,” says Sherpa. In Nepal, his stint at ANTA familiarised him with the dynamics of the local market.

By early 2015, Sherpa had quit ANTA Nepal, and he had also wrapped up R&D for his first batch of masks.

“I had two models all set for production and my plan was to launch them in mid-2015,” says Sherpa. But in April 2015, Nepal was struck by deadly earthquakes, and a few months later, India imposed an economic blockade on the country. These two events forced Sherpa to put everything on hold. Sherpa finally managed to launch Metro-Mask at the end of 2015.

Metro-Mask was launched with two models: City Mask and Moto Mask, priced at Rs 1,500 and Rs 3,500, respectively.

“I was new to the business of mask manufacturing, and I knew that to succeed, I had to get as much feedback as possible from my customers. I must have asked hundreds of customers what they thought about the fit of the masks, the quality of the materials used, their comfort, and the pricing,” says Sherpa.

Many customers told Sherpa that they found his Moto Mask quite expensive. Then, Moto Mask was made using high-grade neoprene fabric, which, Sherpa says, was what many popular anti-pollution mask manufacturers used.

“I decided to follow the global trend, which I very soon realised isn’t always a wise thing to do. I learnt a very valuable lesson. Whether I am choosing fabrics for my masks or working on designs, I have to always keep my customer base in mind,” says Sherpa.

Currently, Metro-Mask has two models: Urban (available in two fabric options: cotton and mesh) is priced at Rs 1,500, and Dispo, a disposable mask, can be used up to 100 hours, and range from Rs 250 to Rs 350.

“Urban masks have replaceable filters, and each packet of Urban mask comes with one filter, which lasts up to a month, depending on how much pollution it is exposed to,” says Sherpa. “Urban masks are washable, and customers just have to replace the filters.”

Both Urban and Dispo masks, according to Sherpa, are KN95 certified, and are able to filter 99.9 percent of dust and particulate matter from the air. KN95 is the Chinese industry standard, equivalent to the American N95 standard for filtration, and the masks at a state-of-the-art plant in China. The masks are available at all ANTA stores, leading online shopping sites, Himalayan Java outlets, and can also be ordered through the company’s social media platforms.

But in a country where surgical masks and cloth masks with no filtration are available widely and cheaply, Metro-Mask’s products are quite expensive and beyond the purchasing power of many. “My masks cost much more than the commonly-used masks without filters, but they offer protection against PM 2.5 particles. Prolonged exposure to such particles increases the likelihood of heart attacks, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems,” says Sherpa.

According to a recent study by the Nepal Health Research Council, nearly 12 percent of the population—aged 20 years and above—is suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A report by the World Health Organization states air pollution is one of the major risk factors for COPD.

“Before starting Metro-Mask, I wasn’t very aware of the severity of Kathmandu’s air pollution, but the more I read and researched it, I grew alarmed. It was one of the things that motivated me to go ahead and start Metro-Mask,” says Sherpa.

Raising awareness about air pollution, Sherpa says, is crucial. Metro-Mask’s social media pages have multiple posts about Nepal’s air pollution.

Being aware of air pollution, Sherpa says, has left him with a moral weight to make his masks more accessible to the masses, which means making them more affordable.

“With prices of raw materials increasing, along with manufacturing and transportation costs, keeping prices as low as possible is a challenge in itself,” says Sherpa. “But I know that price is an important factor if I want to see more people using proper anti-pollution masks. I have spent the last few months identifying areas that will allow me to lower production costs, without compromising on quality.”

Sherpa recently spent a month in China, researching and experimenting with a new range of fabrics. He now plans to come up with a new range of masks that will offer the same quality but at more affordable rates. After all, the goal is to make certain that everyone can afford to safeguard their health.

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