Africa Series I
Welcome to the first post in our three-part Africa series, curated by last year’s Ambassadors. In this installment, we dive into the current state of the biotechnology industry in Africa, focusing on the challenges it faces. From infrastructure limitations to regulatory complexities, we aim to provide a clear understanding of the obstacles hindering the sector’s progress. Stay tuned for subsequent parts where we explore potential solutions, showcase success stories, and highlight the transformative impact of biotechnology on the continent.
Challenges faced by the biotechnology industry in Africa
By Laurinda Mqhaba
In recent years many African countries have recognized the potential of the biotechnology sector to address various challenges, such as food security, healthcare and industrial development. As such, the biotechnology industry in Africa is experiencing rapid growth.
However, despite the significant progress made in recent years, several challenges continue to hinder the full realization of its potential. This article aims to provide a comprehensive review of the challenges facing the biotechnology industry in Africa.
The main challenge faced by the African biotechnology industry is due to insufficient infrastructure, including lack of well-equipped laboratories, greenhouses for experiments and reliable electricity (World Economic and Social Survey, 2018). This limits technological advancement and leads to brain drain. Skilled researchers move to countries with better facilities (Dodani, 2005). Inadequate institutions also limit collaboration with international research organizations. To overcome these hurdles in Africa, it is crucial to prioritize certain areas such as improving the workforce, establishing research facilities and enforcing regulations.
The African biotechnology industry is confronted with a significant obstacle in the form of inadequate financial support. In Africa, governments tend to allocate limited resources towards scientific research and innovation due to competing priorities such as poverty reduction, healthcare provision, and basic education (UNESCO Institute for Statistics; 2020). This leads many researchers to depend heavily on external funding from international donors who may not share their local counterparts’ priorities. Additionally, this reliance on outside financing can lead to sustainability problems when funds are abruptly withdrawn or reduced, as well as directly impacting research agendas through imposed donor interests.
For Example, African governments and industries are encouraged to invest more in biotechnology as a means of reducing the continent’s reliance on food imports and gaining public support for the technology. Currently, foreign donors provide significant funding for scientific research, including agricultural biotechnology, in Africa. However, proponents argue that African nations should use their own resources to address food insecurity. International organizations believe that supporting biotechnology in Africa will create a stronger food system. Thirteen African countries are currently working together on biotech crops with assistance from donor agencies, foreign foundations, and governments. However, there is also a need for increased investment from African governments and local private companies. The case of Ghana demonstrates the importance of local investment as the progress of genetically modified cotton commercialization was hindered by the withdrawal of international financiers. Increasing investment in biotechnology is expected to reduce food imports and improve acceptance of the technology in Africa (Summarized from Alliance for Science Blog ;2018).
The “Brain Drain” Phenomenon
The shortage of technical knowledge among scientists and researchers is a significant impediment to the growth of the industry. Unfortunately, the continent has a scarcity of skilled professionals equipped to conduct advanced research in various biotechnology fields. This situation is worsened by the “brain drain” phenomenon (Dodani, 2005), where many experts migrate to more industrialized countries due to better pay and working conditions. Africa encounters significant challenges in advancing science and technology such as: limited funding, low literacy levels, and underrepresentation of women in scientific fields. Consequently, the deficiency in technical expertise hampers technology development and transfer within the region, ultimately impeding the overall progress of the industry (Mutume et al, 2007).
Policies and Regulations
The growth of Africa’s biotechnology sector is also hindered by ineffective policies and regulations. Often, there are insufficient regulatory frameworks governing biotechnology research, development, and commercialization. Even when a regulation framework exists, it is often poorly implemented due to weak institutional capacity, corruption or lack of political will (Masehela, 2023). This leads to delays or halting of important projects that could benefit food security or healthcare provision in Africa.
Despite increased stakeholder involvement and political leadership, contextual factors may still prevent effective policy implementation. Therefore, the focus should be on improving policy implementation rather than developing new policies, with government institutions playing a central role in all stages of the policy process. Strong mechanisms such as improved financing can help increase efficient and impactful implementation of research and innovation for health policies (Mugwagwa, 2014).
Low public awareness and acceptance of biotechnological products pose a significant hurdle for industry in Africa. Public perceptions about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), for example, have been influenced by negative campaigns led by anti-GMO activists who raise concerns about their safety and environmental impacts (https://www.nepad.org/microsite/public-awareness) (Muzhinji & Ntuli, 2020).
In addition to enforcing strict biosafety standards, governments should educate citizens on the benefits and drawbacks of GMOs. The slow adoption of GM technology in Africa may be due to unfavorable policies shaped by low public education and opinion on GMOs (Mmbando, 2023). These fears may lead to resistance against GMO adoption among farmers or consumers’ hesitancy towards purchasing GM products despite their potential benefits (Bawa & Anilakumar,2012).
To address this, stakeholders responsible for GM technology must take an active role in educating the public and policymakers at grassroots levels. Adoption policies that support GM technology can improve crop resistance and increase farmers’ incomes (Mmbando, 2023). Therefore, it becomes critical for governments and other stakeholders to invest in science communication initiatives aimed at increasing public understanding and appreciation for biotechnologies.
A recent study conducted in South Africa (Gastrow et al, 2018) revealed interesting insights into the public perceptions of biotechnology. Although familiarity with biotechnology has increased in the past decade, it remains relatively low. South Africans have a more positive view of the health and economic implications of genetically modified (GM) food compared to Europeans but are less critical of its environmental impact. Specifically, 53% of South Africans believe GM foods are good for the economy, while only 31% of Europeans share this belief. Younger South Africans show more optimism about the economic benefits of GM food. However, engagement on the issue is lower in South Africa, with 31% responding “don’t know.” Commercial farmers are seen to benefit more from GM crops than subsistence farmers. Concerns exist regarding the environmental impact of GM crops, perceived to be higher than traditional farming methods. The study also highlights the importance of considering demographic views and diverse information sources, as well as incorporating indigenous knowledge systems, for effective communication and targeted public engagement strategies in biotechnology.
Lastly, ethical considerations surrounding biotechnology applications in Africa also contribute to the challenges faced by the industry. Some communities may be reluctant to adopt biotechnological innovations due to religious, cultural or social beliefs related to manipulating genetic materials.
For instance, gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 have been met with skepticism and ethical concerns about “playing God” or creating “designer babies”. The use of gene editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 on human embryos raises ethical and social questions that cannot be addressed by science alone. There is substantive disagreement about the appropriate research pathways and permissible clinical applications, often rooted in deeply held moral, religious, or ideological beliefs. Scientists and policy makers are calling for public and stakeholder engagement in developing guidelines and policies governing scientific practice (Iltis et al, 2021).
These ethical dilemmas can create barriers for the adoption of beneficial technologies, necessitating further public engagement and dialogue on these issues. There is a need to close the yield gap in staple crops and enhance food production to feed the growing population (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017).
The use of modern biotechnology, including genome editing, is necessary to improve crop varieties. Advanced biotechnological techniques offered by genome-editing tools allow for accurate and effective modification of an organism’s genome in a targeted manner. These systems have been widely employed across various plant species to enhance agricultural traits and understand gene functions (Zhang et al, 2018).
CRISPR/Cas-based genome editing is being used to enhance the resistance of African staple crops against biotic and abiotic stresses, as well as to improve their nutritional quality. Recently, Nigeria and Kenya have released national biosafety guidelines for regulating gene editing. The article highlights the importance of creating a favorable environment in Africa through science-based regulatory policies that allow for the release and adoption of products developed using genome editing technologies. (Tripathi et al; 2022).
In light of these numerous challenges facing the African biotechnology sector, it is imperative that stakeholders take strategic steps towards addressing them. Governments should invest more resources in infrastructure development, capacity building initiatives and policy formulation, while working closely with regional and international partners. Furthermore, efforts should be made to improve science communication strategies targeting diverse audiences to promote public understanding and acceptance of biotechnologies. By tackling these challenges head-on, Africa can harness the immense potential of biotechnology to address pressing developmental needs and contribute significantly to global scientific advancements.