Africa Series II
This is the second post in our three-part Africa series, curated by last year’s Ambassadors.
In this installment, we showcase the success story of Aurora Agyemang, a research scientist at Hive Biolab in Ghana. Aurora emphasizes the potential of biotechnology in agriculture, citing its ability to improve crop yields, resist pests, and reduce environmental impact in this interview compiled by Erikan Baluku, one of former GBR Ambassadors.
Breakthrough in biotechnology innovation:
Africa finds a solution for local enzyme biomanufacturing despite limitations in biotechnological research
- By Erikan Baluku
Research Scientist Hive Biolab, Ghana
Aurora Agyemang is the research lead at Hive Biolab, a community lab that develops educational resources for teaching contemporary skills in synthetic biology, locally manufactures enzymes, and develops open-source hardware for educational and research purposes. She also leads the Girls in Biotech Fellowship Program (GIB), which empowers women in biotechnology through capacity building, research, rapid prototyping, and entrepreneurship. Aurora’s expertise lies in Synthetic Biology, nanotechnology, nanomedicine, nanosensors, biosensors, and open-source hardware for biology. Her primary goals include empowering women in STEM, promoting research and development, and advancing synthetic biology.
The potential benefits that technology might have in Africa are a topic of growing debate. The two extremes of this discussion have persisted to this day: Aurora Agyemang believes that biotechnology holds the key to solving many of the economic, social, and environmental issues that emerging nations face, and this was her key inspiration to pursue a career in biotechnology.
Meet Aurora as she explains the story behind the success of biotechnology research and her inspiration to pursue a career in biotechnology. You can read about her work below and get to know how Hive Biolab in Ghana has utilized the potential of biotechnology in solving problems:
PN: How do you spend a typical day as a research scientist?
Aurora: On a typical day as a research scientist, I am involved in conducting experiments, analysing data, managing laboratory operations, collaborating with cross-functional teams on projects, attending meetings, giving presentations, and staying up to date with the latest research and industry developments. I manage to perform all the basic routine practices which could be an indicator of what most science researchers in every lab across the world go through daily.
PN: What is the most exciting project you have worked on, and what made it so interesting?
Aurora: I enjoy my role in Hive Biolab, and the most exciting project I have worked on is manufacturing enzymes for LAMP assay to detect SARS -CoV 2. What was fascinating about this project is how Kumasi Hive lab was able to detect SARS-COV 2 using locally manufactured enzymes. I was involved in the project and to accomplish it, different steps were involved which included 1) research, 2) induction, 3) purification, and 4) quality control. Research conducted by Hive Biolab indicates a promising trend of breakthroughs in biotechnology innovation on the African continent to address challenges in accessibility to reagents. The issue of accessibility to reagents is one of the hindrances to the growth of the biotechnology ecosystem in Africa because the shipping of reagents is costly and limits research execution in under-resourced countries.
PN: What are the challenges you face in your role as a biotechnologist?
Aurora: As a biotechnologist, I have faced several challenges including funding limitations, access to reagents, access to equipment for experiments and storage and technical difficulties associated with developing or optimizing experiments or products. Limited access to funding has continuously impacted biotechnology research in Africa and local funding remains a challenge in the Global South. Statistics from South Africa published in the Review of South Africa’s Innovation showed the formal R&D expenditure as 8.7% and biotech companies contributing to South Africa’s GDP with 1.8% sales revenue. Additionally, In Sub-Saharan Africa, the gross expenditure on R&D in biotech research is less than 0.3% for most countries.
Biotechnology projects often require significant investment of time and resources, with no or little guarantee of success and this could be another factor making countries lag in investing in biotech research.
PN: Can you walk me through the process of developing a new biotechnology product, from ideation to commercialization?
Aurora: I got an opportunity to be part of a few scientists that have developed products for commercialization at Hive Biolab. The process of developing a new biotechnology product typically involves several stages, including ideation, research, development, product optimization, regulatory approval, and commercialization. In addition to the above process, it may involve a combination of laboratory work, data analysis and business development. Collaboration with partners and stakeholders in academia, government, and industry is key in product development because you get to understand the dynamics of the market and key players from the government in terms of the accreditation and certification process.
PN: What is the biotech contribution to agriculture from your perspective?
Biotechnology is a field that has been applied in many sectors and Aurora explains the potential of biotechnology in the agriculture sector.
Aurora: Biotechnology has the potential to revolutionize agriculture by improving crop yields, increasing resistance to pests and disease, and reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. For example, genetically modified crops have been developed to resist pests or tolerate drought, reducing the need for chemical pesticides and conserving water.
Image Source: ISAAA AfriCenter, 2021
PN: Is computer science a prerequisite for biotechnology?
Aurora: Computer science is increasingly important in biotechnology, as computational models and algorithms are used to analyse large datasets and simulate biological systems. Biotechnologists can also work with environmental scientists to develop sustainable biotechnology solutions or collaborate with medical researchers to develop new therapies. Therefore, while computer science may not be a strict prerequisite for working in biotechnology, having a strong foundation in computer science can certainly enhance one’s ability to contribute to the field.
PN: Can you discuss a recent breakthrough or development in biotechnology that you find particularly promising?
Aurora: One recent breakthrough in biotechnology is the development of mRNA vaccines, which have been used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. mRNA vaccines work by instructing cells to produce a protein found on the surface of the virus, which triggers an immune response without exposing the individual to the actual virus. This technology has the potential to revolutionize vaccine development and could be used to develop vaccines for other diseases as well.
Read more about Africa’s first mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub gets to work
PN: How do you stay up to date with current biotechnology news?
Aurora: I stay up to date with the latest advancements and research in biotechnology through reading scientific journals, attending conferences, participating in online forums, and collaborating with colleagues in academia or industry to network, share knowledge and work on projects.
PN: Thank you very much Aurora for taking the time to answer our questions!
Photo: Part of Hive Biolab Lab Space
Erikan Baluku, 2023 GBR Ambassador in Africa
Erikan is a University of Cape Town molecular and cell biology graduate student. He co-founded Mosquito Guard Uganda Limited and has a bachelor’s degree in biomedical laboratory technology from Makerere University. He manages the SynBio Africa Ambassador Program. He volunteered as an iGEM Ambassador in Africa, and currently serves as a GBR and UNLEASH ambassador to Africa. Erikan aspires to motivate more students, scientists, and officials in Africa and beyond to collaborate on biotech solutions to global problems as a GBR Ambassador.