Delivering low-cost hand sanitiser for communities in Zambia

Kirsty Scott

11 August 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Promoting innovation and entrepreneurship

Since the initiation of this project, we have been able to produce low-cost hand sanitiser for the university benefiting both the teaching staff and the entire student populace of over 5,000 people. In 2021, the national regulatory authority approved the manufacturing of our low-cost hand sanitiser and currently awaiting marketing authorisation for supply to the public.

Zangini Nakazwe

With thousands of students annually, diverse teaching staff, interdisciplinary courses, and access to technology and laboratory facilities, universities and academic institutions have the ability to foster and develop entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial initiatives.

In 2021, while working as a lecturer and laboratory scientist in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Lusaka, Commonwealth Alumnus Zangini Nakazwe spearheaded a project to produce low-cost hand sanitiser to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

Harnessing local expertise

The idea for the sanitiser project was borne from the realisation during the pandemic that most disinfectants and antiseptics in Zambia were imported with only a limited number of companies within the country producing a competitive product. Due to the products being imported, they were sold at a high price which some local citizens can’t afford to pay. With the COVID-19 pandemic, critical action was required to ensure the safety of the public, including access to products to help prevent the spread of the virus.

In drafting the proposal to develop the sanitiser using university facilities, Zangini conducted research to understand the production process and how to keep costs low. She found that using locally sourced raw materials was key to this because it removed import costs, supported local businesses, and increased access to materials for production.

To produce the product and initial pilot within the university, Zangini worked with fellow laboratory technicians and colleagues in other departments to create the production chain. This included recruiting colleagues to oversee quality control and quality assurance, packaging, and disseminating the product in university buildings.

After initial dissemination, Zangini gathered feedback from colleagues and students on how the product compared to imported sanitisers and ways to improve it.

“The information and feedback that was provided to us was quite relevant because it helped us improve the product. Initially our plan was to make a gel hand sanitiser. Then from the feedback that we got we were actually able to improve our product to a spray sanitiser.”

Through one-to-one interviews and feedback surveys, Zangini discovered that users preferred to use a spray sanitiser, which led to further research on how to produce and package this using locally sourced materials and university laboratory technology. A significant upside of this feedback was that producing gel-based sanitiser is more expensive than a spray sanitiser, and as such led to reducing production and consumer costs even further.

“Since the initiation of this project, we have been able to produce low-cost hand sanitiser for the university benefiting both the teaching staff and the entire student populace of over 5,000 people. In 2021, the national regulatory authority approved the manufacturing of our low-cost hand sanitiser and currently awaiting marketing authorisation for supply to the public.”

Applying an entrepreneurial skillset

Zangini highlights that bringing the project to fruition is an important step in her wider career plan to turn her research into action. During her undergraduate degree, she completed a course on entrepreneurship, which exposed her to basic principles and information. In pursuing her Master’s study, she looked for courses which would help her expand this knowledge and apply it to her work.

“When I was applying for a Commonwealth scholarship, I was looking for a programme that would help me translate the knowledge I acquired into practice. I was so happy to find that the University of Strathclyde was offering a course in biomedical sciences with a component of entrepreneurship. Having undertaken that course at master’s level, it boosted my abilities.”

The course at the University of Strathclyde provided her with in-depth insight into entrepreneurship, from product development to manufacture, sales, and patenting.

Zangini and colleagues are now applying this knowledge to seek marketing authorisation and sell the hand sanitiser across Zambia. If successful, this will be the first product produced by the University of Lusaka and sold to the public.

While selling the product to nationwide consumers would provide a new revenue stream for the university, Zangini stresses that profit is not the primary motivator of her work, or for making it publicly available.

“I’m not just looking at selling a product for profits only. Before anything else, I’m looking at contributing towards the wellbeing of everyone. Way before the pandemic, we used to have outbreaks like the cholera outbreak because a lot of people did not take the use of hand sanitiser so seriously. But with [the pandemic], a lot of people’s behaviours have changed and they’re using sanitisers, they’re considering hand hygiene. It’s something I’m looking to see work to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases.”

Collaborating with decision makers

Following the success of this project, the university encouraged Zangini and her team to seek ways to collaborate with others. In 2021, the University of Lusaka partnered with the local council to participate in the Bloomberg Global Mayors Challenge, an innovation competition that would identify and accelerate ambitious ideas developed by cities in response to the COVID-19 pandemi, led by the local council. The project theme selected was converting waste into cash to address the issue of waste management in Lusaka and help identify projects that could be implemented to tackle the growing problem.

One idea Zangini and her team developed was producing alcohol from waste that could be used in the production of low-cost sanitiser. Zangini participated in drafting the proposal and the project was selected as one of the top 50 global submissions.

The project did not make it through to the later stages of the challenge, but the initiative has been taken up by the council to sensitise local communities about waste collection and management and ways to sort waste for cash incentives.

In developing the project, Zangini had the opportunity to work with council members from a range of departments and broaden her collaborative skills beyond those from a research or academic background.

“Working with the council was actually something interesting because it wasn’t just the people that are in the same field as myself. It was actually interesting to work with people from different departments, like the council public health department and also other community workers. The knowledge that I obtained from those people actually enlightened me and opened up my mind to other projects.”

From research to action

Despite only completing her Commonwealth Scholarship in 2020, Zangini is already thinking about her next steps and pursuing PhD studies in biomedical sciences in the next five years. She stresses that in continuing her academic and research career, practical application of her research remains at the heart of her work.

“Looking at my career plan, I don’t just look at teaching, I also look at having a research group, a research lab that would discover new knowledge and also translate that knowledge into practice.”

Zangini Zakazwe is a 2019 Commonwealth Scholar from Zambia. She completed a MSc in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Strathclyde.