As a laboratory technician at the Joburg Market, Bongani Gambu has had his hands full during the lockdown, conducting daily analytical experiments to detect harmful pesticides in fresh produce, before it’s released to be sold to the general public.
But this isn’t unusual, Bongani has had busy early mornings every day since joining Joburg’s biggest food hub over 10 years ago; switching on laboratory equipment at 6am and dressing up in his barron poly-cotton dust coat before setting up apparatus needed to analyse and test fresh produce.
He always needs to ensure the laboratory in City Deep is routinely cleaned, maintained, calibrated, and sterilized, and that it’s fully stocked up with chemicals and supplies to conduct regular standardized tests on fresh produce, in a bid to help improve the quality of food sold at the market.
“Our work is very critical to ensure that poisonous food doesn’t make it to the market’s floor to be sold to traders and other consumers,” he says.
Bongani keeps frozen food samples inside the market's laboratory for about a week before results are released or until a farmer requests a retest. Once results are conclusive, he compiles a report to share with the farmer or the scientific community so they can take future precautions when necessary.
“If a sample tests positive for an unauthorised pesticide on a certain crop, the farmer needs to remedy this and follow the correct procedure before they harvest again,” he explains.
Everything is procedural in the laboratory, Bongani says, adding that to avoid mistakes, technicians adhere to benchmarks set by the Southern African Institute for Nuclear Technology and Sciences (SAINTS) and stringent regulations from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
As a lab technician, the reticent 48-year-old analyses test results using electrical devices that help identify harmful contaminants in all fresh produce that arrives from the farm to the market.
He notes that although lab technicians are susceptible to all sorts of mishaps, they always avoid anything that may harm the Market’s reputation.
“We mostly have to avoid the cross-contamination of food so we protect our reputation and that of the farmer,” he says.
The Sowetan from Emdeni says he’s passionate about analytical chemistry, which he studied at the Vaal University of Technology. He cut his teeth at Rand Water, before joining the National Health Laboratory Service and then the Joburg Market.
He’s a father of two and when he’s not engaged in scientific work, he attends church and plays with his children. Bongani prefers studying on Sundays to further his studies in chemistry.