The growing global demand for food, feed, bio-energy and agricultural land together with rapid globalization, new technologies and trade regimes are changing the conditions for the agriculture and utilization of genetic resources worldwide. The revolutionary achievements in the field of biosciences are contributing to e.g. the improvement of crops in terms of drought resistance and nutritional value, at the same time bio-based alternatives for energy and materials are becoming more economically viable and more mainstream. These conditions predetermined the emergence of the “Bio-economy” concept*.
The central feature of a bio-economy is that scientific research and knowledge can be applied to biological resources and agricultural systems not only to produce food and feed but also to an increasingly wide range of agro-industrial and value added products with potential applications in many sectors, e.g. pharmaceuticals, chemicals and energy.
For the countries that primarily rely on bio-resources, transition to a bio-economy seems to make a lot of sense. However, due to the fact that most of these countries are categorized as low-income and characterized by underdevelopment of institutional structures, transition to a knowledge based bio-economy contains serious challenges.
The SIANI seminar gathered representatives from academia, government and private sector to discuss the major challenges and opportunities in relation to the development of a bio-economy in Africa.
Setting the scene: challenges ahead for Sub-Saharan Africa
Jane Morris, Professor of Biochemistry and life sciences consultant, kicked off the seminar talking about The Prospects for an African Bio-economy. More than 40% of the population in Africa lives on less than $1 a day and one third of the population is undernourished. The agricultural sector is the largest employer of labor but the agricultural production output has been stagnating. The sector has been underinvested both in terms of research and action. Moreover, the current agricultural system is environmentally unsustainable.
In other parts of the world strategies for implementing a bio-economy have been put in place, such as the bio-economy blueprint in the US and the bio-economy strategy in the EU. However, there is little action on this issue in Africa. Professor Morris is proposing that a strategy could be discussed on a country or regional level and/or in different policy blocks.
What are the possibilities of a knowledge-based Bio-Economy?
Small-scale farms account for 80% of agricultural production. Poor infrastructure as well as poorly developed markets and market access are some of the main barriers hampering small scale farmers to take advantage of new strategies or create new businesses. This leads to the use of unsuitable crop varieties and poor management practices. Agricultural production and crop yields on the African continent need to be increased. Macro-economic stabilization and reduced costs for doing business have short-term gains while fostering long-term growth and livelihood improvement requires innovation. “How can bio-science innovations contribute to a sustainable bio-economy?” is a question posed by Professor Morris and she points out that, if successful, bio-science innovations can result in:
- Improved crop varieties for local conditions
- Improved animal breeds
- Plant and animal diagnostics and health solutions
- Novel agro-processing solutions providing value addition to primary production
- Reduction in post-harvest losses
- More efficient use of agricultural biomass, as well as waste reduction
- Novel crops, such as essential oils, with potential for high economic return
What is needed for a sustainable bio-economy in Africa?
Julius Ecuru, from the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology provided insights from a practitioner’s point of view on Functional Bio-science Innovation Systems as the Pathway to a Sustainable Bio-economy. He acknowledged the need to build local capabilities. These exist today in Uganda in the universities but do not obtain the necessary support and training. Mr. Ecuru stressed the great importance of business incubators to support the development of sustainable innovative enterprises as, according to him, most of the emerging firms do not survive the first year.
Jane Morris supported his claims by commenting on the university system in Africa: “The system needs to be integrated, so that it is not only concentrated on writing papers. Currently there are no incentives for creating innovations on the ground and to become entrepreneurial”, she states. This leads to the conclusion that there is a need for a dialogue between different sectors: integrated educational systems need to create an entrepreneurial innovative environment while the public sector has to facilitate and provide the necessary support.
The importance of the public sector involvement in the development of an innovative bio-economy was pointed out as being of critical importance. Mr. Ecuru concurs that at this point the investment risks are very high and these risks cannot be covered by the interest rates offered in Africa. However, he states that the potential is very high and that the development of stable, functional public sector support is necessary for realization of this potential.
The final speaker, Ivar Virgin, Senior Research Fellow at SEI Stockholm, takes Bio-science as a Tool for Development. Elaborating on the issues of the growing population and food demand that have to be met in the context of climate change, he states that African agricultural development has to be focused on crop productivity. Moreover, agricultural economies without the application of modern bio-science will miss the opportunity to develop resource efficient sustainable crop production.
Like Mr. Ecuru, Dr. Virgin recognizes the key role of the public sector, including North-South collaborative partnerships, in developing agricultural innovations in Africa. He provides examples such as the BIO-EARN program, run between 1998 and 2011, and the current Bio-Innovate Africa program, both initiated and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
Although the programs in general have been very successful and received positive evaluations, Dr. Virgin states that public R&D institutions in Africa need to further improve their ability to collaborate. To be able to bring innovations to the markets these institutions must engage collaboratively in business sector activities. Ivar Virgin points out that 90 % of the innovation processes are likely to fail, while the remaining 10% will actually succeed. Policies that somehow function as cushions for these 90% that fail are therefore needed. He emphasizes that innovation is a process of constant learning and that it is important to understand that system change does not happen overnight.
All the three speakers agree that the development of a knowledge based bio-science economy in Africa requires collaboration between the educational system, private sector and government institutions as well as development agencies. All actors have to be included in the dialogue and specific visions to guide the transformation have to be disseminated to all stakeholders. In closing, Ivar Virgin challenges SIANI to facilitate the development of such visions and collaborations, all with the objective to move Africa towards a knowledge based bio-economy – and SIANI says “Why not?”
*What is a bio-economy? “From a broad economic perspective, the bio-economy refers to the set of economic activities relating to the invention, development, production and use of biological products and processes. These benefits are expected to improve health outcomes, boost the productivity of agriculture and industrial processes, and enhance environmental sustainability”. Source: OECD
Reporting from the SIANI-seminar:
Moving Africa towards a Knowledge Based Bio-Economy