Analysis & Opinions - Business Daily

Putting Biotechnology to Economic Use in Africa

| November 13, 2007

African leaders are determined to forge a new economic outlook based on science and innovation. This is reflected in their decision to seek advice from African experts on the role of biotechnology in Africa’s development.

The results of the work of the High-level African Panel on Modern Biotechnology are contained in Freedom to Innovate: Biotechnology in Africa’s Development.

The report was released yesterday at the meeting of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) in Mombasa. It was compiled by a panel of African experts from both inside and outside of the continent.

The panel was put together by the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

Freedom to Innovate outlines specific and practical measures to advance development, quality of life and environmental sustainability using biotechnology. It is a bold statement on the need for Africa to build the capacity needed to manage emerging technologies.

The report stresses that biotechnologies should be developed with appropriate safeguards in place and according to the best internationally-agreed standards.

The work of the panel represents the most comprehensive and transparent assessment exercise used by the AU and NEPAD.  It brought together the full spectrum of views on the subject and was able to reach consensus on controversial aspects of biotechnology.

The panel reviewed existing and historical plans, reports and published-research. It conducted consultations with stakeholders around the world.  In addition, public meetings were held and written and verbal submissions were recorded from researchers, scientists, the business community, policy-makers, legislators, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and individuals.  

Freedom to Innovate went through several drafts, which were posted on public websites. The findings were presented at workshops and conferences in Africa and other regions of the world.   In November 2006, AMCOST committed itself to developing a 20-year African biotechnology strategy to be implemented through the Regional Economic Communities (RECs).

The panel’s main recommendations include the need for countries in central, eastern, western, northern and southern Africa to work together at the regional level to scale up the development of biotechnology.  A key vehicle is through what the panel calls  Regional Innovation Communities and Local Innovation Areas.

These would include clusters of expertise, sharing knowledge, creative ideas, personnel, and collaborating on specific projects. Regional Innovation Communities might include institutions that are already situated close together, such as universities, science-based industry and science parks. But today, institutions do not need to be in close proximity to work together.

Effective collaboration can take place between people and institutions that are geographically separate so long as the will exists to do so.  Regional Innovation Communities are a form of regional economic integration, which Africa is already experiencing in other areas.

Regional integration can help foster mobilising, sharing and using existing scientific and technological capacities, including human and financial resources as well as physical infrastructure for research, development and innovation.  

Some Regional Innovation Communities will come about organically. But many will need to be nurtured. In every case, what will be needed is a pool of talented and skilled people, as well as new and existing institutions, willing and able to embrace change.

There needs to be a step-change in this area. This will entail reviewing and adjusting national and regional policies and related legislation to promote higher education, R&D and innovation.

The report’s other recommendations include: outlining priority areas in biotechnology that are of relevance to Africa’s development; identifying critical capabilities needed for the development and safe use of biotechnology; establishing appropriate regulatory measures that can advance research, commercialisation, trade and consumer protection; and setting strategic options for creating and building regional biotechnology innovation communities and local innovation areas in Africa.

Food security, nutrition, healthcare and environmental sustainability are among Africa’s biggest challenges. Regional biotechnology efforts have a role to play in each and can be implemented through what the panel calls long-term “biotechnology missions”.

Clustering can take place around priority areas as well as in places and institutions where expertise exists. Health biotechnology, for example, is concentrated in southern Africa. North Africa is established in bio-pharmaceuticals.

Animal biotechnology has strong roots in eastern Africa; crop biotechnology in the west and forest biotechnology in central Africa.  Africa’s ability to effectively use existing and emerging biotechnologies will depend largely on the level of investment in building physical, human, institutional and societal capacities.

More specifically, Africa’s regional innovation communities will need to focus on creating and reforming existing knowledge-based institutions, especially universities, to serve as centres of diffusion of new technologies into the economy.  

Dependence on what we call the “relief model” for international cooperation will need to change towards a new emphasis on competence-building. Investing in critical capabilities is central to Africa’s ability to benefit from its resources.  

Africa needs to: develop and expand national and regional human resources development strategies that include; a continental biotechnology curriculum that focuses on specific areas and targets that offer high economic potential for the regions and the continent; a consortium of clearly identified and designated universities and research centres that develop and offer regional biotechnology training courses; a focus on female recruitment in the sciences and engineering.  

Africa needs to immediately expand and create infrastructure development programmes in order to tap into the opportunities that may arise from biotechnology.
Research and development activities for the development, operation and maintenance of infrastructure need to be promoted, and linkages need to be established with both domestic and overseas research networks.

African countries need to identify specific biotechnology priority areas that offer high potential for regional R&D and product development and integrate these priorities into African regionalisation processes and policies. To improve commercialisation and business capacity, Africa needs to: foster R&D cooperative partnerships at the local, regional and international levels; create policy instruments that enable business incubation and development; develop functional market infrastructure for economic development; and stress the role of technology in general and biotechnology in particular for SME development policy.

The following mechanisms can be used to increase funding for biotechnology R&D in Africa: substantially increased national R&D budgets; special funding mechanisms, possibly innovation funds funded through a variety of means including challenge funds; specific funding mechanisms under government ministries; distinct African funding schemes or facilities; reformed tax laws (foundation laws and industry-wide levies); and national lotteries.

Africa should adopt the co-evolutionary approach where consumer protection goes hand in hand with the development of the technology itself. New stakeholder partnerships, awareness campaigns, and innovation competitions need to be created to facilitate public awareness and education on issues of biotechnology.

Emphasis should be put on maximizing the benefits associated with new technologies while reducing their negative impacts. Equally important is a consideration of the long-term implications of non-adoption of emerging technologies.  

The essential point therefore is developing and harmonising regional regulations governing issues such as regional integration, research and development, safety (covering field and clinical trials) and trade in biotechnology products and services.

Africa’s regulatory institutions need transparent and high quality scientific capacity to assess biotechnology-related risks and to be able to regulate quickly, safely and effectively.  

The panel recommends the creation of an African Presidential Science and Innovation Council to oversee the implementation of AU recommendations related to scientific capacity building.  Complementary organs may also need to be created in the Regional Innovation Communities.

There is  need to develop harmonised legislation and measures based on international, continental, and individual country good practices in the context of the emerging Regional Innovation Communities.

Development of such frameworks can lead to a co-evolution of regulatory frameworks and technology development.  The Pan-African Parliament (PAP) is an ideal institutional locus for harmonising regulations and promoting biotechnology missions.  

There is need to strengthen PAP engagement in developing regional and continental programmes for biotechnology.  Strengthening PAP will involve establishing for it advisory mechanisms, providing its committee with evidence-based policy studies, and equipping it with technology monitoring capabilities.

Africa needs to take strategic measures aimed at promoting the application of modern biotechnology to regional economic integration and trade.  Such measures include fostering the emergence of regional innovation systems in which biotechnology-related Local Innovation Areas play a key role.  

But doing so will involve additional measures that include upgrading regional capacities and forging international partnerships.   Furthermore, funding such initiatives will involve adopting a wide range of approaches aimed at generating the necessary financial resources, including “innovation funds”.

Existing funding sources such as international and regional development banks could also play a key role in helping in the commercialisation of products from the biotechnology-related local innovation areas.  

Regional economic communities need to begin to determine potential opportunities for biotechnology specialization and to foster regional networking of biotechnology centres for R&D related to this regional specialisation. African Regional Innovation Communities need to facilitate North-South and South-South collaboration as well as to mobilise the expertise in the diaspora for development.

Long-term process of biotechnology development in Africa needs to go hand-in-hand with the creation of regional economies. African countries need to: facilitate the process of regional integration; and foster technological innovation as a force for promoting regional integration and trade.

Local Innovation Areas hold the promise of creating competitive, biotechnology driven African economies that will benefit from spatial concentrations of regional innovation actors (universities, firms, and research institutes).

Countries and Regional Innovation Communities need to:  identify biotechnology-related fields of local relevance; and  facilitate local innovation centre upgrading initiatives.  

There is great potential in developing North-South and South-South collaborations supporting biotechnology R&D and capacity-building in African regional innovation communities and local innovation areas.  

Countries and emerging Regional Innovation Communities need to identify ways of improving cooperation with other regions (particularly Asia and Latin America) of the world to effectively address issues pertaining to biotechnology.

Africa’s history has been marked by a development narrative in which the benefits from science and innovation have been enjoyed by few.  Today this is changing and Africa’s leaders view science, technology and innovation as critical to human development, global competitiveness and ecological management.  Freedom to Innovate is therefore an important contribution to Africa’s technological renaissance.

Prof Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is a co-chairman of the High-Level African Panel on Biotechnology of the AU and NEPAD.

Dr Serageldin is director of  the Library of Alexandria and member of the Senate of Egypt and a co-chairman of the High-Level African Panel on Biotechnology of the AU and NEPAD.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous and Ismail Serageldin.“Putting Biotechnology to Economic Use in Africa.” Business Daily, November 13, 2007.