African biotech students remain hopeful, despite obstacles

By Christopher Bendana

November 9, 2018

Though most African nations have been slow to commercialize genetically modified crops, students across the continent remain committed to earning advanced degrees in biotechnology.

Ironically, Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, has become a hub for such students, though the country has yet to pass its own biosafety law, leaving its publicly-developed GM crops to languish in the laboratory.

Some of these graduate students, like Frank Kumi, a principal research assistant at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, are more hopeful about the situation in their own countries. Kumi noted that Ghana has a biosafety law and imports GM products. The nation is also moving to commercialize pest-resistant Bt cowpea, its first GM crop.

Kumi was motivated to pursue his doctorate after noticing a research gap at his university. “There is only one plant breeder in the crop science department,” he explained. “And the dilemma is that he is on post-retirement. I needed to exploit the opportunity.”

Mercy Ulemu Msiska, currently an assistant director in the Department of Crop Protection in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development in Malawi, said she’s pursuing her training as part of her country’s strategy to build capacity in biotechnology.

But she’s really driven by a desire to use genetic engineering to fight insect pests and plant disease in Malawi. She said the devastating banana bunchy top virus is her priority.

Luckily for her, Malawi has a biosafety law and has advanced its research on GM cowpea and cotton to confined field trials, so she is hopeful she can apply what she has learned at Makerere University. She also revealed her intention to invest in a seed company when she retires from her government job in four years. “I was looking at working with seed,” she said. “It is where I am trained.”

While her fellow students at Makekere are primarily lecturers, Msiska has been engaging farmers to help them understand the advantages of adopting GM technology. She consistently reassures them that no government wants to introduce a technology that would harm its people.

Angele Pembele Ibanda, who attended the University of Kisangani before transferring to Makerere, is looking to gain the skills to become a university lecturer — a goal that also inspires Hailey Mehari, a PhD student from Ethiopia.

Ibanda said she is also looking to use her expertise to invest in soybean research when she returns home to the Democratic Republic of Congo, using the country’s existing polices and legislation.

Though the DRC has no biosafety law, she noted that the United States — the mother of GM technology — also has no federal legislation specific to genetically modified organisms and instead regulates the products under existing health, safety and environmental legislation.

Ibanda believes the environment is conducive for GM research in the DRC as scientists at the University of Kisangani have already conducted confined field trials on saline-resistant cassava — a staple food crop for 80 percent of the nation’s population.

Mehari said he is pursuing his PhD so he can continue teaching at Mekelle University, where he is creating Ethiopia’s own pool of biotechnology experts. Ethiopia is receptive to GM technology, he said, and has already created a roadmap on what to do with it. The country recently approved commercial cultivation of Bt cotton and field trials of Bt maize.

South Africa has taken the lead in producing GM crops. The crops also have been adopted in Sudan and now Nigeria. Burkina Faso was growing Bt cotton but dropped production due to issues involving fiber length. Burkina is now exploring re-introducing the technology. Kenya, meanwhile, has begun performance trials on Bt cotton.

Other African countries have developed GM crops resistant to several pests and diseases. They include Uganda, where government scientists are waiting for the enactment of the biosafety law so they can release the improved potato, rice, banana and maize varieties to farmers.

Makerere University Professor Emeritus Patrick Rubaihayo, who is credited for introducing the biotechnology course, laughed when asked where his students were going to work after graduation.

“Biotechnology is just not about transformation or making GMOs,” he said. “Gene mining itself is a field big enough to keep breeders busy for the rest of their lives.”