The humble hand sanitiser was one of the first products to disappear from South Africa’s retail shelves as the extent of the Covid-19 crisis became increasingly clear.

Yet, it remains one of the most essential and basic weapons in the battle to contain the virus.
Responding to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call for South Africans to face the threat, Unisa is using the laboratories and equipment at its hi-tech science campus to provide citizens with an effective, affordable hand and surface sanitiser solution.

The project is the brainchild of MSc student Fungai Chibaya and draws on the expertise of scientists attached to the university’s Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability (NanoWS) research unit.

NanoWS is a strategic research unit that sustainably addresses current and emerging issues relating to water quality and water scarcity.

Established in 2014, the unit has a proud history of providing technology solutions to communities all over the country.

“Well in advance of the current lockdown, I noticed media reports on shortages of hand and surface sanitisers,” said Chibaya, “and within weeks these products were nowhere to be found in retail establishments and pharmacies.

“Realising that my scientific training enabled me to, at least within my immediate environment and on a small scale, provide an alternative to commercial brands, I produced a batch of sanitisers at my flat on March 11. The batch passed testing with flying colours.”

Chibaya approached Unisa with the idea of producing the sanitiser on a larger scale.

Professor Thabo Nkambule, the acting director of NanoWS, and Professor Bhekie Mamba, the executive dean of CSET, immediately adopted the idea and proposed production at the NanoWS laboratories.

Unisa’s procurement division also gave the project its stamp of approval.

Assisted by NanoWS instrument scientist Dr Hlengilizwe Nyoni, Chibaya is hard at work producing the product in volume at the laboratories.

Official registration and branding have been prioritised and initial distribution has commenced among Unisa staffers.

In addition to hand sanitation, the solution is also used at the university to sanitise laboratory spaces and working surfaces in offices.

The immediate plan is to scale up production within the confines of operation during the countrywide lockdown period and to supply Unisa in full for its own operations.

It is anticipated that even after the lockdown has been lifted, the practice of clean hygiene will be imperative and in the longer run the university intends extending production and supply to government, hospitals and pharmacies.

“We currently have the capacity to produce 1000 litres in a day, when produced in bulk,” said Nkambule.

“To partially recoup material and labour expenses, we would ideally wish to sell 50% of the sanitisers produced to recover costs and donate the other half to Unisa students and staff, and the communities we serve.”