Africans improvise sanitisers, masks to plug shortages

Across Africa, dwindling supplies of sanitiser and surgical masks could prove a boon for entrepreneurs seeking to plug shortages.

Pienaar and Son Distilling Company is selling the ethanol the company produces as a waste product so that people can make their own hand sanitisers at home. Picture: Pienaar and Son Distilling Company

CAPE TOWN - When panic over the coronavirus spurred a run on hand sanitiser in Cape Town, gin maker Andre Pienaar realised there was something he could do with all the waste alcohol his small distillery produces.

He had 140 litres of the 70% ethanol waste - called “gin heads” in the trade - just sitting around, so he posted on social media that anyone who needed some could have it for free to turn into the hand wash at home.

“The response was crazy. It was finished in three hours and there was a limit of one litre per person,” he told Reuters. He has now started selling the ethanol his Pienaar and Son Distilling Company is still producing.

“There is nothing on the shelves for people other than soap at the moment. It is just another option to help protect people,” he said.

Across Africa, dwindling supplies of sanitiser and surgical masks could prove a boon for entrepreneurs seeking to plug shortages. Amateur chemists in Nigeria and Kenya are mixing up hand wash, while enterprising tailors in Rwanda are sewing their own masks.

Health officials warn that wearing masks in public won’t protect you from the virus, and say sanitiser only works if it’s more than 60% alcohol - and even then soap and water are better.

But those warnings have not stopped customers flocking to Alexander Nshimiyimana, a tailor based in Kigali’s main market. He is using kitenge, a kaleidoscopic local fabric, to make masks that are not only cheaper but much prettier than the standard hospital-style ones.

“It is a kind of opportunity to some people to make money. It is also (an) opportunity to innovate,” Nshimiyimana said.

The continent of 1.3 billion has recorded only around 1,100 cases in 43 countries, with 39 deaths, a fraction of the more than 305,000 people infected and more than 13,000 deaths worldwide. But there are concerns that Africa’s creaky health infrastructure could be overrun as the virus spreads.

“A mask will not protect you from the infection, it will protect others if you wear it from getting infected should you have symptoms. So in this respect also a piece of cloth works,” James Ayodele, spokesman of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) Africa office.

Ayodele said that the CDC also advised against making sanitiser at home because it contains alcohol at a potentially dangerous high concentration.

But Moji Kusanu, a chef in Nigeria’s commercial hub of Lagos, decided to respond to an obvious shortage - after prices shot up to 1,700 naira ($5.55) for a 200ml bottle, from 200 naira before.

She customised an online sanitiser recipe, which recommended mixing alcohol with aloe vera gel, by adding glycerine for extra moisturising effect.

“Sometimes, when you are out you cannot wash your hands. Sanitisers can ... make a difference,” she said.