Research project workshop a great success

CPUT recently hosted a successful workshop for South African and German researchers who are collaborating on three bilateral research projects.

The three research projects, NOVBIOSURF, SLAC, and SYNDEX, are among 12 SA-Germany bilateral research projects that were launched last year.

The focus of the research projects ranges from topics such as wastewater, to the production of new compounds, but mainly aims to allow for the exchange, training and development of young researchers and PhD-level students.

The three-day event was held at the Cape Town Hotel School and aimed to encourage the exchange of ideas and the development of new collaborations and networks.

It was organised and hosted by Dr Marilize Le Roes-Hill, Head of the Biocatalysis and Technical Biology Research Group in CPUT’s Institute of Biomedical and Microbial Biotechnology.

The workshop was co-hosted by Prof. Tukayi Kudanga (Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology at Durban University of Technology (DUT).

The guest speaker was Prof. Emile van Zyl from Stellenbosch University who presented on the lessons learned from working in the ‘bioethanol production’ and ‘enzyme expression in yeast’ space while progress on each of the three research projects was presented during the course of the workshop.

“To all of those who attended the workshop, which also included other researchers and students from CPUT, DUT and UWC, it was a great success, allowing for the free exchange of ideas and the stimulation of in-depth discussions. Potentially new collaborations were established and the workshop team as a whole, are looking forward to future joint workshop meetings,” said Le Roes-Hill.

The projects are jointly funded by the Department of Science and Technology (South Africa) and the German Federal Ministry of Education Research.

Namibian crafters: can indigenous knowledge and commerce coexist?

The name Makalani is a nickname given to a tall species of palm tree – the Hyphaene persiana – by the local people living in the north-western parts of Namibia. The meaning of the name Makalani is difficult to trace, but has generally been adopted across Namibia. Also known as the vegetable ivory palm, the tree can bear up to 2,000 fruit over four seasons – each fruit housing a nut. Harvesting the hard, ivory-coloured seed doesn’t harm the tree.

The nuts are soft enough to shave away with steel tools yet hard enough to retain delicately carved detail. They can also be polished after being carved without losing the detail. These properties mimic those of ivory or shell which are used to make valued objects like cameos and buttons.

Objects made from the nuts are sold to tourists in Namibia and provide a valuable source of income in a country that struggles with high levels of unemployment.

And, as the example of the similar Tagua nut (the seed of the Phytelephas aequatorialis palm) in Ecuador shows, there is a rising demand for these products. This includes add-ons, like buttons, for the fashion industry. Called vegetable ivory, the Tagua nut can be shaped into buttons for fashion garments. Additional design features could include minor detailing in car interiors.

In my research I found that several other crafting techniques used on the Ecuadorian nut could also be used on the Makalani nuts too.

I partnered with a master crafter in a local community of Makalani crafters to establish a project to look at ways of developing the artisan craft based on rich indigenous knowledge. As an academic jewellery designer, I was able to offer different jewellery techniques. The master crafter’s indigenous knowledge was used to understand the material and what techniques worked best when carving the nut.

The project raised interesting questions about the use of indigenous knowledge and commercialisation.

Research through experiments

We experimented with various classic jewellery design techniques. These included sanding or dyeing of the material with locally accessible dyes. These dyes included vegetable dyes (beetroot) and a bright pink (magenta) dye known as Otjize. Otjize is a natural dye used to dye shells and fabric by the Oshiwambo women.

The Oshiwambo tribe live mainly in the northern part of Namibia. The colour of their traditional dress, known as an Ondelela, creates a distinct aesthetic. This dye is shrouded in mystery as none of the women could (or perhaps wanted to) share what the dye was made from.

The experimental sessions proved a great success. Many of the artisans were excited to learn more about the new techniques. Many had never seen the nuts dyed.

But I was concerned about the project’s inevitable impact on the social fabric of the communities. I questioned whether local crafts would not eventually dissolve when organised like an industry.

The master crafter voiced his concern around the exclusion of the crafters from the commercialisation of their craft. The development of their craft had resulted in marginalisation in the past.

To make such a co-creation project work, it was important that there wasn’t a hierarchy between the local crafters and myself. This helped establish trust and created an environment of learning through experimentation.

Each step was carefully documented. Great attention was paid to details that enabled a better understanding the needs of the craftsmen, and incorporated their suggestions. This helped to avoid the trap of bringing “design solutions” to a “local problem”.

But, for me, questions remained. Would gearing the art towards mass commercialisation threaten the craft practices which form the very essence of the indigenous knowledge embodied in their artefacts?

I was reassured by advice from Thomas Thurner, Research Chair for Innovation in Society at Cape Peninsula University of Technology:

Studies like this one provide valuable insights into how co-creation between indigenous knowledge and academic knowledge could work. Marrying both could yield new ways of making things work both in a sustainable manner and with a high social acceptance.

Is more really better?

Today the crafted product is being developed in its local setting, which is based on the crafters’ skills. One unresolved question was whether or not to pursue commercialising the crafters’ operations. The possibility of moving to manufacturing products was not something the crafters had entertained.

Rising production numbers would require industrial production methods. But this, in turn, would lead to the unavoidable detachment between the crafter and the final product. The most important question for the crafters was how to retain most of the benefits of sharing their indigenous knowledge, and how to ensure that they remained a crucial (and lucrative) part of the process.

Opening a commercial route would bring about an additional benefit – saving a depleting tree population. The north-central part of Namibia used to be dense with palms but many have been lost because of a rise in palm sap harvesting.

Written by Design lecturer, Michelle van Wyk. This Article first appeared in The Conversation.


Write during recess


The June/July recess may present the perfect opportunity for university experts to share some of their knowledge with a non-academic audience.

Around 50 CPUT staff members have already contributed popular articles to The Conversation Africa (TCA) website and had the benefit of working with the site’s expert panel of editors to create a popular article which is then republished in mainstream media.

CPUT has officially endorsed TCA since 2015 and views the relationship as an essential arm of university research uptake efforts.

A writing workshop for CPUT staff and co-hosted by CPUT’s Research Directorate and Media Liaison will be hosted later this year but academics are urged to register on the site at to start receiving notifications.

TCA is a non-profit, public good agency seeking to mainstream science, increase the engagement between academia, scientists and the wider public. This is done by getting academics, researchers/scientists to write for the general public.

Their team of editors work with the academics to do this, hence their motto – ”academic rigour, journalistic flair”. These analytical pieces are then made available for free and all articles are available for republishing for free, under the Creative Commons licence.


Academic speaks at African Diabetes Congress


The Head of the Biomedical Sciences Department, Prof Tandi Matsha, recently joined diabetes researchers from across the country and the rest of the continent in Cameroon for the Third African Diabetes Congress.

Matsha said she was invited to speak on the topic of diabetes and epigenetics.

“The reason for my invitation was that our group (the Cardiometabolic Health Research Unit) has published the first studies on epigenetics in an African population,” says Matsha.

Matsha, who is the founder and lead researcher of the unit, said the research has been published in three journals: Clinical Biochemistry, The International Journal of Endocrinology and the Journal of Diabetes Research.

Matsha also visited Norway recently after a two-year grant was received from the UTFORSK partnership programme.

This would enable three CPUT students to travel to Norway later this year as part of their Work Integrated Learning experience.

The three students are on the BHSc: Medical Laboratory Sciences Programme and will spend three months in Norway.

The project would also seek to establish research collaborations between CPUT’s Biomedical Sciences Department and the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences.

The UTFORSK Partnership Programme supports project cooperation between higher education institutions in Norway and higher education institutions in Brazil, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Africa.


Expert leads research in technical textiles

Research is about taking a problem and finding suitable solutions.

This is the mantra of award winning researcher and innovator, Dr Asis Patnaik, who will spearhead research activities in the field of technical/smart textiles at CPUT.

Patnaik recently joined the Department of Clothing and Textile Technology and holding a NRF-C2 rating since 2015, he joins the growing ranks of high profile researchers at CPUT.

A renowned expert in technical textiles, he has extensive experience in working with industrial partners and funding agencies to solve research and development problems, and his efforts have resulted in an impressive 62 publications in peer-reviewed accredited sources and two technology demonstrators.

One of Patnaik’s most notable research ventures resulted in the development of innovative dual insulation (sound and thermal) materials for the building and automotive industries, manufactured entirely from waste plastic bottles and discarded sheep wool. Patnaik says the innovation not only provides consumers with a cost-effective insulation options but has created business opportunities for local entrepreneurs and sheep farmers.

“We want to move away from outsourcing from abroad. Research must also be about creating jobs and empowering people,” he says.

With more than 350 different textiles available in the market, the field of technical textiles is very diverse and is not limited to clothing but extends to textiles and technical textile based materials suitable for the manufacturing, automotive, medical, building and footwear industries amongst others.

“The word “technical textiles” means textile based materials used for technical applications. Some of the examples of such materials are roof celling insulation materials for the building, filters for air and water populations, surgical gowns and face masks used in the medical fields,” says Patnaik.

“In a car interior, there are about 40% textile materials used for various applications. It can be in the form of seat, carpet or sound absorbing materials generally used behind the bonnet or door panel of the car to absorb the engine and road noise.”

Patnaik says it’s an exciting field and one with endless opportunities to innovate.

He is also currently working on several innovative projects, including the design of specialised footwear for diabetic patients and the development of an antimicrobial textile that will be derived from natural resources.


*Elsevier publisher selected over 30 publications from various disciplines to feature in a virtual special issue to Celebrate Earth Day on 22nd April 2017. This issue focuses on the research work done to solve some pressing problems the Earth is facing today. One of Patnaik’s article is featured in that selected list of distinguished authors published papers for 2017.


Water is Life


As the Western Cape battles a critical water shortage the research conducted by Prof Vernon Somerset, a leading researcher in Environmental Chemistry, has become ever more urgent.

Somerset recently joined the Chemistry Department, and holding a NRF-C3 rating he joins the ranks of high profile researchers and innovators at CPUT who are using their skills to address the numerous challenges facing local communities, South Africa and the rest of the continent. Describing water as a fascinating field, Somerset says ultimately all his research work is aimed at ensuring South Africa’s water resources are adequately protected and that communities have access to safe drinking water.

“This research is important, because nationally we don’t have a lot of water and on the other hand we have a lot of mining and agriculture activities, which impacts on our water resources. The more we know about the impact of these anthropogenic activities, the better we can advise. There is also the area of emerging pollutants, such as pharmaceutical and personal care products, xenobiotics, antimicrobials, endocrine disruptors, etc. We are becoming much more aware of these components. It’s important for us to know more about it so that we can protect our water resources and safe guard people from being exposed to these pollutants,” he says.

Hailing from the highly respected Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Somerset, who has a PhD in Electro-analytical Chemistry from UWC, will drive environmental related research that has an impact on aquatic ecosystems and human health at CPUT. While based at the CSIR he has also investigated the fate and transport of heavy metals in the freshwater ecosystems of South Africa, especially the global pollutant called mercury. He is currently involved with other researchers across the country, assisting the Department of Environmental Affairs with South Africa’s ratification of the Minimata Convention on mercury.

Somerset says he looks forward to training the next generation of researchers.
“I’m here because we need to make sure that students are trained adequately and are equipped to apply their knowledge of environmental chemistry to protect the environment for future generations.”


Visionary leader for research

Prof Dina Burger, the new Research Director of CPUT is eager to make a contribution.

“Having read CPUT’s Strategic Plan as articulated in the Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI) Blueprint, I realized this is an opportunity of a lifetime that I would like to be part of.”

The former Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research at the South African Campus of Monash University is well equipped for the challenge as she has comprehensive experience and expertise in public and private higher education as well as the international university environment.

This has made her suitably equipped to advance the institution to the next stage of its research development trajectory.

Burger started her career as an academic at the former Technikon SA where she ended up becoming Dean of Academic and Institutional Research.

Following the merger with UNISA, she was appointed Research Director at the University of South Africa where she worked for a number of years.

“I’m very optimistic about CPUT’s research vision and its ability to make a unique contribution to the scholarship of discovery, application and innovation.”

In her position as Director for Research, Burger says she will endeavor to provide world-class research direction, support and service to all staff that are interested in research, and would particularly focus on the advancement of the career of researchers.

In so doing, Burger believes the institutional credibility and research reputation will become known and recognized in South Africa and beyond.




Better maternal care in Africa can save women from suffering in childbirth

Every year just over 500,000 women die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth across the world. Another 20 million experience severe complications. But many of these complications are entirely avoidable – including obstructed and protracted labour and one of its side-effects, obstetric fistula.

An obstetric fistula is a hole in the birth canal between the vagina and the rectum or between the vagina and the bladder that is largely caused by obstructed and prolonged labour. This can occur when the mother’s pelvis is too small or the baby is too large.

In sub-Saharan Africa for every 100,000 deliveries there are about 124 women who suffer an obstetric fistula in a rural area. Obstetric fistulas predominantly happen when women do not have access to quality emergency obstetric-care services. Antenatal care could help to identify potential problems early but will not have an impact if there is no skilled surgeon to assist with the labour.

Although skilled attendants are necessary, it is the emergency obstetric surgeon who is needed to successfully remove the foetus and save both the baby and mother’s life.

A developing world problem

Obstetric fistulas are more commonly reported in developing countries, including South Africa. But it is predominantly localised to the “fistula belt” – an area spanning the northern half of sub-Saharan Africa from Mauritania to Eritrea, and the Middle East and Asia’s developing countries.

About two million women suffer obstetric fistulas worldwide. But most are concentrated in the fistula belt, where more than 6,000 new cases are reported each year.

For example, in Ethiopia it is estimated that 9,000 women develop a fistula each year, of which only 1,200 are treated.

A fistula forms when, during prolonged labour contractions, the foetus constantly pushes against the mother’s unyielding pelvic bones. The effect leads to the compression of the blood vessels, which decreases blood flow to this area and deprives the tissue of nutrients.

As a result it weakens the tissue and a hole forms. The baby is unlikely to survive – and if the mother survives and the fistula is not repaired, she is left with both psychological and physiological scarring.

In some cases a woman may experience labour for up to a week. Globally, more than 75% of women with fistulas have endured labour that lasted three days or more.

For most women who live in the developed world, obstetric fistulas are uncommon and are usually promptly repaired. This is primarily due to emergency obstetric care that is readily available.

But women who survive the excruciating ordeal of obstructed labour and develop an obstetric fistula in impoverished countries are often doomed to a life of absolute misery.

From a physiological perspective, they suffer from uncontrollable leaking of urine and faeces and are unlikely to bear more children.

The psychological suffering stems from often being rejected by their husbands, shamed and socially segregated and ultimately divorced, demoralised and excluded from their family and religious activities. They also face a high risk of worsening poverty and malnutrition.

Obstructed labour is preventable

In principle, obstetric fistula can be avoided by:

  • delaying the age of first pregnancies;
  • removing harmful traditional practices such as child marriages and female genital mutilation; and
  • providing access to obstetric medical care with suitably trained surgeons.

In many instances, young girls do not have pelvises fully developed for childbirth. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 25% of the patients with fistula in Ethiopia and Nigeria, for example, became pregnant before the age of 15.

Although access to care is important, accessing suitably equipped facilities for antenatal care and safe childbirth is also integral. In many rural settings this is usually difficult, as health centres that can provide emergency obstetric care may be up to 70km away with no easy or affordable form of transport.

And even if women travel to these facilities, in many instances they must provide their own surgical gloves and dressing for a clean delivery.

Improving maternal health

Improving access to emergency obstetric care is the first and most important step to prevent women from suffering from the effects of an obstetric fistula.

Global health initiatives have taken this call seriously, and maternal health was one of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Preventing and managing obstetric fistulas was identified as a critical objective to attain this goal.

Maternal health continues to be a focus area that receives attention in the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are many organisations and unsung heroes dedicated to giving hope back to the women who have been demoralised and severely burdened by fistulas. But the obstacles that these women have to overcome to receive treatment – including whether they have access to medical care and what the cost is – need to be addressed.

A compounding factor that could increase the cost of treatment is the time that has lapsed between the formation of the fistula and the surgery.

It is reported that the longer a woman waits for surgery, the greater her scarring and the more complex the surgery. It is not uncommon for women in low-income countries to seek treatment after months, or even decades, further begging the call for trained and experienced surgeons.

As the world moves into the 21st century, boasting advances in science and technology, it stands accused of failing to provide fundamental maternal health care to those most in need of it. To be given the conditions for safe childbirth is the basic human right of every woman.

By Kareemah Gamieldien

First published in The Conversation at

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at