The African continent hasn’t been as badly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic as other countries in the world so far, but new cases are on the rise and governments have introduced social distancing measures.

And while the pandemic is bad for business, some African entrepreneurs have stepped up to be part of the solution and are seeing new opportunities.

Frequent and thorough washing of hands with soap and warm water is one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of infectious diseases.

But according to Water Aid, four in 10 people around the world have no access to basic hand washing facilities.

One of the ways in which the coronavirus is spread is via contaminated surfaces. Getting into the habit of regular hand washing can prevent infections, but the virus can still spread as people tend to touch the tap and other things around them.

In a city like Freetown in Sierra Leone, a population of 2 million people has a water supply capacity which ideally should be used by no more than 800,000 people, according to international development consultancy firm IMC Worldwide.

Water is already scarce, and now hand washing is crucial.

To solve this problem, one business has developed a portable hands-free tap unit that is now being placed outside shops, banks and government buildings.

Finic in Sierra Leone usually specialises in manufacturing agriculture processing equipment

The Fomel Industry and National Industrialization Centre (FINIC) usually specialises in manufacturing agriculture processing equipment and other machines.

But now the firm, founded by Melvin Foday Kamara, is manufacturing a portable freestanding hands-free faucet that is operated by stepping on pedals to access soap and water on demand.

Access to clean water

Clean running water is also in short supply in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, where citizens told the BBC they are now washing their hands with washing up liquid, as they cannot afford to buy hand sanitiser.

“In the area where I live, running water is very scarce, so we actually have to have buckets of water so that it’s easy for us to wash our hands,” Wadzanayi Musasa explains.

“When we get home from the shops, we take off our gloves, we use dish washing liquid to wash our hands and someone will hold a jug of water [to rinse them].”

Clean City distributing water to Harare’s neighbourhoods to aid hand washing

Waste management and clean water provider Clean City is now distributing water around Harare’s residential and commercial areas in tank trucks, so that citizens can collect extra buckets of water to ensure hygiene standards are preserved through the lockdown.

The company started in 2018, in response to two cholera epidemics that hit Zimbabwe in 2008 and 2018. The firm says it realised that something had to be done to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Compared to people living in richer nations, people in developing countries are more negatively impacted by waste that isn’t managed properly, which puts both human health and the environment at risk.

More than 90% of waste in developing nations goes to dumpsites, according to data from the United Nations Environment Programme.

Every day, Clean City also offers fumigation and decontamination services across Harare, which can be ordered using a mobile app.

“We’re basically driven by two principles – digital first and people first,” says Clean City’s chief executive Lovemore Nyatsine.

“Everything is contactless. Our crews follow very clear processes to keep our clients and themselves safe.”

3D printed masks

One example of an industry stepping up as a result of the pandemic is the 3D printing community – tech firms, universities and 3D print enthusiasts with their own printers are responding to the shortage of healthcare workers’ personal protective equipment (PPE) – and in some cases more complex hospital medical supplies – by making it themselves.

Mayamiko Nkoloma designing a mask using CAD software

Malawi has been experiencing severe shortages of PPE during the coronavirus lockdown.

The shortages are due to costs of procuring the equipment, as well as disruption caused by the pandemic to global supply chains.

Blantyre-based tech firm iMoSyS is one such company that is now using its 3D printers and computer assisted design (CAD) software to design reusable face masks and face shields for healthcare workers.

Typically the firm focuses on providing IT and engineering services to enable the remote monitoring of industrial processes, infrastructure and patients’ health.

Entrepreneur Mayamiko Nkoloma, chief executive of iMoSyS, says his firm has received numerous requests from across the African continent, but also from overseas countries including the UK.

“Anything is possible. We started with nothing but ideas, and we took our ideas to industries and pitched them to solve challenges,” he tells the BBC.

Melvin Foday Kamara, business entrepreneur and founder of Finic

Despite the myriad challenges presented by the pandemic, to say nothing of the looming recession once lockdown measures are eventually lifted, some firms feel trying times are when real growth and change is possible.

“As bad as the coronavirus is, it has provided the opportunity for many leaders in business and in governance to have a rethink,” says Mr Karama of Finic in Sierra Leone.

“It is important that we leverage innovation…it is important that Africa learns to innovate, to monetise [and] not to import everything.”

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