Time for a bioeconomy in Africa

Thought Leadership Column: by the Director General

On 21 March 2018, a momentous occasion was marked in Africa when 44 African nations signed the continental free trade agreement (CFTA). As the first flagship project of the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063, the CFTA aims to establish a single market for the continent’s goods and services, while promoting intra-African trade and accelerating regional integration. The Agreement offers a platform for the movement of raw materials within Africa, and the development of a robust and modern industrial base. Overall, the CFTA, with its potential spillover effects of better market access, aligned trade regimes, increased investments as well as job and wealth creation, is expected to lead to economic diversification and structural transformation in the continent.

What does the CFTA mean for the research and development community in Africa?

The CFTA is about Africa trading with itself; but it is also about African nations combining synergies to trade with the world in the best way possible. In other words, the CFTA will enable Africa to create regional value chains and to connect them to the global value chain, thereby entering the global market at a higher level than ever before. To exploit new opportunities and to address and new demands, Africa’s quality and quantity of trade will require a massive boost.

Within this scenario, two issues are evident. First, trade in Africa will no longer be ‘business as usual’. A shift must occur with a move from trade in raw commodities to value added products. Second, and closely aligned, Africa now has a chance to innovatively exploit its abundant biological resources into commercial ventures that will lead to inclusive development and transform livelihoods. In effect, and to the benefit of scientists, researchers and innovators, the CFTA presents a very real chance for Africa’s emerging bioeconomy.

A bioeconomy is an ideal that brings together the commercial activity surrounding the use of renewable biological resources – such as crops, forests, animals and micro-organisms (like bacteria) – to solve challenges related to food, health, environmental protection, energy and industrial processes. In Africa, a bioeconomy has the potential to reinnovate primary production especially in agriculture, the backbone of most economies in the region, and also in sectors like aquaculture, forestry, health and industry. Therefore, adopting a bioeconomy development model, with its components of harnessing biosciences knowledge, technology generation, transfer and uptake, leading to sustainable bioinnovations and accompanying products and services, institutions and policies, presents a viable way to create opportunities for all sections of society, including women and the youth.

icipe and BioInnovate Africa: Supporting a bioeconomy

This vision of a bioeconomy in Africa is one that we at icipe embrace, through BioInnovate Africa Programme, one of Africa’s largest regional innovation-driven science initiative, which is hosted and managed by the Centre with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). BioInnovate’s mandate is to facilitate collaboration between scientists, policymakers and industry partners, to link bioscience research ideas and technologies directly to business and the market.

This responsibility clearly resonates with the vision of a bioeconomy. In accordance, the Programme is significantly involved in the promotion of a bioeconomy in Africa. For example, in November 2017, BioInnovate, in partnership with icipe and the National Council for Science and Technology of Rwanda (NCST) organised a high level forum on developing a bioeconomy in eastern Africa. Under the theme: ‘Inclusive growth through sustainable bioinnovations’, the event aimed to explore opportunities and ways to address challenges for bioeconomy development in eastern Africa. Based on this forum and other activities, icipe makes the recommendations in the following page in regard to the development of a bioeconomy, especially in view of significant developments like the CFTA.

Recommendations

Commitment to sustainable and inclusive development

A bioeconomy must contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by deliberately and consistently embracing the three pillars of economic growth, environmental protection and social inclusion, while avoiding potential trade-offs between them. The development of a bioeconomy should also be mindful of how programmes can advance economies of diverse communities, and encourage participation of all sections, including women and youth across the value chain.  

Capacity building

As an emerging, multi-sectoral concept, the development of a bioeconomy will require a range of skill sets.

For example, scientific and technical capacity will be needed in genetics, biology, ecology, information technology, and engineering, the key drivers of a bioeconomy. Bioentrepreneurs will also have to be trained, in terms of understanding appropriate innovation models, and in translating knowledge into viable businesses.

The capabilities of African partners will require reinforcement, to enable them produce products that meet global standards, and to take leadership roles in the regional and global value chains. Capabilities in science, technology and innovation diplomacy will require a boost. As discussed above, the latter requires a distinct and complex set of activities. Therefore, specific training is required, for example to enable countries to incorporate innovation diplomacy in their diplomatic missions and to equip diplomats with the necessary skills.

A regional bioeconomy strategy is vital towards a shared approach in integrating bioinnovations into the economy. Indeed, this idea was highly endorsed during the aforementioned high level forum. Moreover, BioInnovate Africa was overtly recognised, and implicity mandated, as an appropriate driver of a consultative, participatory process for such a strategy.

BioInnovate embraces this responsibility and aims to work with partners, mindful of the continent’s well founded aspirations for regional integration and opportunities presented by the CFTA.

Establishment of regional technology and innovation hubs

To effectively institute a bioeconomy in Africa, bioentrepreneurship and business incubation needs to be promoted especially among young scientists and innovators. One strategy for achieving this goal is by establishing technology and innovation incubation centres in and around universities and research institutions. Such hubs can focus on specific aspects, expanding to other areas as they mature. In effect, this approach will lead to regional innovation ecosystems.

Science, technology and innovation diplomacy

The institutionalisation of a bioeconomy will require a range of supporting aspects, including increased investments in science, technology and innovation, and pivotal structures like policies and institutions. Therefore, it will be necessary to obtain the backing of policymakers and regional and international partners. This goal calls for science and technology and innovation diplomacy, to facilitate communication of knowledge, values and priorities, translate information, mediate any arising conflict and, overall, develop trust and mutual respect among stakeholders.