South Africa tells the continent: “Learn from our biotech example”

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

August 29, 2018

South Africa is urging other African countries to learn from its latest strategy and adopt more holistic policies around biotechnology.

Ben Durham, chief director in charge of bio-innovation at South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology, said biotechnology adoption works better when it is clearly integrated into various aspects of a country’s development, including industry, health and other areas beyond agriculture.

South Africa is currently leading the continent in agricultural biotech, with more than 80 percent of its maize and soya genetically modified. A lot of Bt cotton is also grown there. Work on the introduction of biotech crops started in 1997 and the country has since substantial progress with its application. Estimates are that between 1998 and 2015, economic gain from GM crops to South Africa stood at $2.1 billion. South Africa is also one of the continent’s major food exporters.

More than 30 years on, a number of African countries have now begun to follow suit. Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Mozambique are undertaking trials of biotech crops following the establishment of regulatory frameworks on biotechnology. In Nigeria, a National Biotechnology Development Authority has been established and in Ghana, the National Biosafety Authority has been given a dual mandate to both regulate and promote agric biotech.

Durham is encouraging these countries to look at the broader picture when handling biotechnology instead of focusing narrowly on increasing agricultural productivity. “My advice is really to focus on the economic impacts that you want and work backwards from there,” he said.

Durham was speaking to the Alliance for Science on the sidelines of the Bio Africa Convention in Durban, South Africa, organized by AfricaBio.

Opening the convention, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said: “We need to showcase our bio-tech and bio-economy successes as a continent and country.” South Africa is committed to “showcasing its bio-innovation capabilities and competitiveness in health, agric, industry and environment and indigenous knowledge sectors,” she said. “I expect the convention to strengthen bio economy policy positions, bio entrepreneurial culture, science commercialization and industry competitiveness towards achieving sustainable development goals… we are open for business when it comes to biotech,” she added.

In 2014, South Africa’s government launched a bio-economy strategy to position bio-innovation as a key tool to achieving socio-economic development goals. The new policy replaced the National Biotechnology Strategy, which had been in effect since 2001.

Derek Hanekom, the former Minister for Science and Technology who launched the new policy, explained at the 2014 inauguration that “the bio-economy concept is much broader (than that of the biotechnology strategy), looking at the entire value chain in a range of areas of possibility and opportunity, in response to South Africa’s priority areas of need.” The 2014 strategy sought to holistically encompass all aspects of biotechnology, including industrial and pharmaceutical, and considered broader issues like economics.

“There are a lot of key lessons that made us change from the biotech strategy to the bio-economy strategy. You need to focus on what is the end. What is the ultimate vision? And in our case, it’s on social economic impact,” Durham told Alliance for Science.

“It’s not good enough that we have a great science system [where] we train people if there isn’t some kind of socio-economic impact. Which is then what the bio-economy strategy is saying: we must develop these technologies because there is a market,” he added.

The new strategy also defined the clear role the private sector can play in the biotech space to help the country meet its socio-economic needs. “Government is not supposed to be in the business of running businesses, and so they need to work with people who know how to make profit, which is the private sector,” he said.

“So it’s an entire system of innovation that needs to be followed. We had trained so many people, we had developed new knowledge, we had developed a whole range of things, but there weren’t sufficient market impacts in other areas to justify carrying on with the strategy. We needed to change focus,” the innovation chief explained.

John Ouma-Mugabe, a professor of science and innovation policy at the University of Pretoria, noted that biotech adoption has progressed slowly on the continent over the last 30 years and the time for further action is now. He said there is the need for “strong African leadership, policy clarity and coherence” in the biotech conversation.