Setting up laboratories in Africa: Where to start

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Your brainchild is coming to fruition and you’re finally setting up a new lab. Exciting!

The emergence of new laboratories in Africa is essential to Scientific progress on the continent and the need for well-equipped facilities with world-class standards is on the rise. You’ve done months of market research; you’ve secured funding and you are ready to jump in headfirst into this new endeavour. But your enthusiasm falls flat when you realise you have more questions than answers when it comes to effective laboratory setup.

At best, poor laboratory setup can have a detrimental impact on overall lab productivity and earning potential. At worst, if can be life-threatening to your personnel.

To exacerbate these challenges, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe to effective laboratory setup. In this article, we will talk about the most important considerations to be made when designing a tailor-made, highly efficient laboratory with your unique safety and industry requirements in mind. We will touch on the importance of considering your lab’s function, form, equipment, and safety requirements during every step of the setup process to guide you towards success.

Function: A new lab with purpose!

Before diving into planning the setup of your lab, you need to understand its future needs. To do so, you need to understand its intrinsic purpose.

The type of lab you intend to build, will have the most significant impact on how it is set up.

Each type of laboratory has its own unique set of safety and equipment requirements. For example, a chemistry lab may need a gas supply, a fume hood and plenty of glassware. In contrast, a physics lab may be handling radioactive materials, where safety measures should take top priority in its layout.

On the other hand, although biology labs do not make use of many hazardous chemicals, they need to be equipped to handle hazardous organisms. These labs may need cell culture facilities, including sterile workspaces, freezers, climate-controlled incubators, and autoclaves.

You could also be setting up a teaching lab that will not need the same stringent safety requirements. However, they will need open-top benches, a whiteboard, and a projector.

Once you have established the intended functions of your new laboratory, its setup can be planned with these specific needs as the backbone of its design.

Layout: Form follows function

The concept of “form follows function” refers to the architectural and industrial design principle claiming that a shape of a building or object should directly relate to its intended purpose. It is no different with laboratory layout!

The physical layout of a lab serves as the foundation on which its functionality and productivity is built.

Equipment can be upgraded, and staff can be continuously trained to improve, but once your lab’s layout has been set in stone (sometimes literally!) it can be near impossible to justify the cost to alter it.

Poor laboratory layout can have a significant impact on productivity, earning potential and even the safety of your employees. With that being said, we urge you to pause at this step, for as long as it takes, because some mistakes made here can have serious repercussions!

The only way to avoid these mistakes, is to plan appropriately. Compiling a checklist of your lab’s requirements will be instrumental in planning an effective layout.

Among many other considerations, we recommend keeping the following 3 concepts at the forefront when preparing your own lab checklists and planning the layout of your lab:


In this context, infrastructure refers to the permanent features of the lab.

The first thing that comes to mind, is the working surfaces of the lab that include the bench tops and floors. These should be chosen, based upon the function of your laboratory and the chemicals and solutions your staff will regularly work with.

Other permanent features may include appropriately large entryways to accommodate delivery and servicing of large equipment. It may also include access to sufficient ventilation systems to accommodate sterile working spaces.

Furthermore, it will include providing enough restrooms based on the number of staff you intend to employ.

Additional considerations could include safe entry points for non-laboratory delivery workers.

You can use these examples as a starting point when listing the necessary infrastructure for your lab.

Think inside the box

What do we mean by that?

We mean you should compartmentalise similar functional workspaces.

For example, you should try to separate high-traffic areas from hazardous workspaces. You should plan strategic locations for large, frequently used instruments.

You also need to keep in mind, that your lab may not only be used for laboratory work. You may need to incorporate administrative workspaces that require less stringent safety precautions.

Furthermore, every lab will need some form of storage space. The size of the space will be dependent on the function of your lab. For example, in a molecular laboratory, there will be a high turn-over of consumables that will require a large storage space. Safe chemical storage according to legal safety standards will also need to be taken into consideration.

Go with the flow

Now that you have established all the workspaces your lab may need, it is time to visualise how these spaces can come together for the most productive workflow in your allocated space.

It could be useful to envision the process of one of the most commonly performed analyses in your intended lab. What equipment and workspaces would technicians use to perform this work? In what order will they use the equipment?

The aim of this exercise is to optimise the productivity without compromising staff safety and limiting contamination.

After all, the last thing you want is a lab technician wandering throughout the entire lab carrying radioactive materials to his next workstation!

Equipment: Tools of the trade

When setting up laboratories in Africa, procuring equipment isn’t always simple. While items like glassware, fire extinguishers, and other basic equipment are easy to come by, some specialised equipment may be harder to purchase.

Anyone who has worked in fully functional labs can attest that no two labs contain the same equipment. Therefore, there is no fool-proof checklist for what your lab equipment needs may be.

We have compiled a condensed list of the basics that you might find useful when compiling your own lab equipment check-list. The more specialised equipment your lab may require, will depend heavily on the function of your lab. We have included a more specialised equipment list as a guideline, using a Medical Laboratory as an example below:

“The basics” What you need when setting up a laboratory,

  • Glassware: Beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks, Florence flasks, volumetric flasks, pipettes, graduated cylinders, test tubes.
  • Micropipette: To accurately transfer pre-determined measures of liquid in the microlitre volume range.
  • Thermometer: A device that measures the temperature of a substance.
  • pH metre: A device that indicated the acidity or alkalinity of a water-based substance, based on its hydrogen-ion activity.
  • Fume hood: A localized ventilation workstation device that limits exposure of hazardous chemicals, cultures, and other substances to the surrounding environment.
  • Centrifuge: A device that separates various components of a fluid through centrifugal force.
  • Microwave: Used to heat materials and liquids in the preparation of growth media and other solutions.
  • Microscope (light or electron): An instrument used to observe small objects otherwise invisible to the naked eye.
  • Spectrophotometer: An instrument that determines the chemical structure and/or concentration of compounds in a solution.
  • Bunsen burner: including wire gauze and tripods
  • Magnetic stirrers: A tool used to effectively mix liquids using a stirrer bar that rotates in solution through a rotating magnetic field.
  • Weighing scales: An instrument used to determine the weight or mass of a compound, powder, or liquid.

Medical lab equipment

  • Microscopes: Used to magnify objects like cells or tissues to detect the presence of bacteria or viral infections or to see changes in the tissue structure.
  • Haematology analyser: Conducts tests on blood samples, such as a blood count or coagulation test.
  • Urinalysis analyser: Examines the chemical constituents of urine samples, such as protein, blood, specific gravity, and glucose.
  • Immunoassay analyser: Used to diagnose infectious diseases, test for cancer markers, or perform cardiac analysis.
  • Medical autoclave: Primarily used to sterilise surgical and pharmaceutical equipment.

Safety First in The Laboratory

When setting up a new laboratory, appropriate safety features are not negotiable. Period.

Although once again, appropriate lab safety protocols will depend on the function of your lab, there are some necessities that most labs will need to maintain safe functionality.

We have compiled an introductory checklist of basic safety requirements to expand on when designing the basic safety plan for your laboratory setup. We have also included a more specialised safety requirement list as a guideline, using a Medical Laboratory, with Biosafety requirements, as an example below:

“The basics”

  • Accredited safety training for all laboratory staff.
  • Sinks must be present to wash chemicals and other apparatus. You should never use equipment that hasn’t been properly washed – it can become damaged with time.
  • Bio-safety cabinets are needed to avoid contamination. Live, infectious organisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi should be kept in such secure areas.
  • Fire extinguishers must be present throughout the lab. If you are setting up a sizeable lab, install more fire extinguishers equidistant from each other.
  • Waste disposal management. You will need colour-coded bins for specific materials. Hazardous materials need to be disposed of appropriately. For example, sharp objects like needles, require a different disposal bin from biomedical waste. Moreover, if your lab involves electronic, radioactive, or chemical waste, disposal should be performed in line with legal industry recommendations.
  • All electrical systems should be wired appropriately. Electrical devices need to be inspected and verified as functional and safe prior to use.
  • Chemically resistant work surfaces must be installed throughout a chemical laboratory to limit damages.
  • When necessary, safety goggles, visors, gloves, lab coats, or full protective equipment should be provided.

“The specifics: Biosafety”

Biosafety is defined as the safety measures taken when handling biological organisms or materials. Such materials pose a threat to human health. The aim is to reduce exposure to the organism or material. There are two types of containment:

  • Primary barriers: To protect the personnel and immediate laboratory environment. Think fume cupboards, lab coats, safety goggles and visors, and other forms of protection.
  • Secondary barriers protect people external to the lab. Good lab design creates internal barriers preventing an organism or hazardous material from breaching containment.

Of course, not all labs will contain extremely hazardous biological materials. Most will be testing normal bodily excretions, and standard medical lab safety standards will need to be applied.

What does it cost to set up a laboratory?

Price: The bottom line

At this stage, you might ask “What will this cost?”.

Well, how long is a piece of string? The short answer? It depends.

If you’re setting up laboratories in Africa, it could be as little as R 152,000 to set up a simple lab involving little more than glassware and chemically resistant surfaces. However, the costs can rise significantly when investing in more specialised equipment.

In a more specialised laboratory setup, mass spectrometers, for example, can range from a few million Rands to tens of millions of Rands, depending on the specifications and quality of the instrument. Due to these high costs, many labs and companies lease their largest pieces of equipment. This strategy helps reduce overall start-up costs and even eliminates the need to spend funds on maintenance.

During lab setup, maintaining a balance between investing in the best quality equipment and keeping within a reasonable budget, will remain a constant challenge.

Initially, you will need to prioritise what your most valued requirements are and how you can safely compromise on other items, while maintaining a high-quality output.


In this article, we aimed to alleviate some of the panic you might face when planning the setup of your new lab. We hope our guidelines and fundamental checklists will assist you in optimising the functionality of your own lab in the future.

Conversely, we hope that this article enforces the importance of appropriate planning and that poor laboratory setup can lead to potentially dangerous and expensive mistakes.

Here, at LabSPACE Africa, we are in the business of highly efficient laboratory setup. Please reach out to us for more information and assistance when setting up your lab. We look forward to helping build laboratories in Africa with world-class standards!


Written by, Kari du Plessis

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