By Duncan Mboyah

A program to turn innovative ideas and technologies based on biological sciences into viable businesses was recently launched in Kigali, Rwanda and will cover six Eastern African countries.


According to the director general of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) Dr. Segenet Kelemu, Bio Innovate Africa will enable scientists, researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs in Eastern Africa to connect bio-based research ideas into improving lives of smallholder farmers and communities.


“We intend to make agricultural processing competitive and environmentally sustainable enterprise to contribute to the increase of agricultural productivity, household incomes and better living standards,” Dr. Kelemu said. The launch of phase two of the program of a five year program is funded by the Swedish International Development Corporation Agency (SIDA) at a cost of 15 million U.S dollars.


Bio Innovate Africa brings together the commercial activity surrounding the use of renewable biological resources such as crops, forests, animals and micro-organisms to solving challenges related to food, health, environmental protection, energy and industrial processes.


The program will be based at ICIPE headquarters in Nairobi, will be implemented in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia and Tanzania. It will focus on value addition to agro-products and related bio-resources including agro-bio-waste conversion. The program will help support environmental sustainability and the development of policy in support of bio-economy.


Kelemu noted that ICIPE will ensure continued realignment of the program’s goals and objectives with the expectations of the partners and stakeholders in the region.


Dr Julius Ecuru, the program manager noted that knowledge-based approach on harnessing biological resources results in business partnerships between scientists, inventors, small and medium-sized enterprises, farmers, and eco and social entrepreneurs, which are more efficient and less damaging to the environment.


“The advantage of a bio-economy, economic activity derived from scientific and research activity focused on biotechnology; for eastern Africa is its high innovation potential due to the fact scientists and entrepreneurs use scientific knowledge and technologies on living organisms or biological systems to create new economic enterprises,” he added.

He said that a bio-economy can bring about economic growth and the international competitiveness of a country or region, while creating new employment opportunities. “The program will highly impact in the transformation of the agricultural sector, which is the backbone of most economies in the region,” Ecuru noted.


Claes Kjellstrom, SIDA’s Senior Policy Specialist for Research said that SIDA is keen at addressing urgent today’s research needs by strengthening institutions and stakeholders in confronting the problems.


“There is urgent need to strengthen regional research institutions to increase possibilities of not only on efficient utilization of expensive scientific equipment and but also foster increased regional collaboration,” he added.


He recommended involvement of national research councils to address harmonisation of strategies and policies in areas of biotechnology.


Kjellstrom called for affirmative action in support of researchers from scientifically weaker countries in the region to support increased participation from women scientists. “Consider allocating part of the funds to help create a network of women scientists to enable them meet yearly,” she added.


Meanwhile African governments have been advised to enact timeline for ending dumpsites to reduce methane in the atmosphere. The continent should also use methane from the dumpsites to produce green energy through biogas as a way of mitigating climate change impacts.


According to Prof Lene Lange from the Center for Bioprocess Engineering, Technical University of Denmark the increasing Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emissions emanates from the dumpsites that are common sites within African cities.


According to Professor Lange, food and wastes that are burnt at the dumpsites also produce smoke causing respiratory ailments in the neighbouring communities. Methane has shorter life in the atmosphere than CO2 (12 years compared with 100 to 300 years for carbon dioxide) reducing methane release from dumpsites can help rapidly reduce climate change risk.


Because methane is the main component of natural gas, it can be captured and burned for energy with a much lower climate impact than letting it seep out. Transformation of the dumpsites has the potential of creating additional jobs for populations in the continent, she said.


She called for the development of the East African bio-economy by upgrading agro-industry in making protein animal feeds, bio-fertilizer, biofuel and ethanol and energy from cassava peels, cassava pulp, pulp from oil seed and fruit, cashew shell and coco-pod husk. She noted that bio-economy is capable of feeding the world by getting more resources out of land and mitigating climate change through the development of renewable fuels.


“The current scare caused by climate change that is blamed for looming extinction of crops calls for the adoption of insects as alternative sources of food for human consumption and feed for livestock,” Sunday Ekesi, ICIPE’s director of research and programs said.


He observed that knowledge-based approach in harnessing biological resources results in business partnerships between scientists, inventors, small and medium-sized enterprises, farmers, and eco and social entrepreneurs, which are more efficient and less damaging to the environment.


He urged governments to forge a bond between the academia, science institutions and industry to make agriculture competitive and biologically relevant for farmers because it is linked to commercialization of renewable biological resources including crops, forests, animals and micro-organisms in solving challenges related to food, health, environmental protection, energy and industrial processes.


The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is developing new strategies to enhance science, technology and business innovation for rural agricultural transformation, Prof. Diran Makinde, NEPAD’s Senior Advisor for Industrialization, Science, Technology and Innovation says.


Prof. Makinde noted that NEPAD plans to develop a critical mass of youthful business leaders by providing a supporting environment where startups, innovations and disruptive ideas from universities are fast tracked to service communities and nurture enterprises driven and led by youths in Africa.


“Issues pertaining to regulations and ethics, education and awareness should be addressed through clear development strategies to prepare the youth for their future role as decision makers,” he added.


He revealed that the African Union High Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) has identified application of gene drive for control and elimination of malaria disease vector, application of drone technology for transforming Africa’s agriculture and promoting micro-grids for expanding Africa’s access to energy.


Prof. Ruth Oniango, the winner of 2017 Africa Food Prize challenged scientist to leave their professional legacy by engaging people in the grassroots.


“Africa stands to emerge from a state of food defiant to food efficient only if scientists engage with populations in rural areas where food is produced,” she added.


Still, 11 research teams from Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania have received $6 million grants to enable them turn their innovative ideas and technologies based on biological sciences, into viable business products and services.


According to Julius Ecuru, the Program manager of Bio-resources Innovations Network for Eastern Africa Development (Bio-Innovate Africa) Programme said that the funding is aimed at making agriculture competitive and biologically relevant for farmers. “The funds are set to help link bioscience as a tool to connecting small scale farmers with value chain and the markets,” Ecuru added


Among the winners of the grants are three innovative technologies and products led by scientists from Makerere University, Uganda. The University will also lead in developing agribusinesses by ensuring all-year-round production and processing of insects that are traditionally consumed in Africa, for instance grasshoppers and crickets.


Other projects include production new, conveniently and attractively packaged sorghum and millet products that can be consumed instantly in various solid forms, or as malted drinks; and strategies to integrate information communication technologies (ICT) in the production and marketing of tissue culture sweet potato vines to increase yields.


The University of Dar es Salaam researchers will scale-up production and commercialisation of a renewable fertilizer that is fortified with nitrogen from biodegradable waste obtained in urban centres.  The Tanzania Institute of Research and Development have been granted funds to enhance smallholder mushroom cultivation.


Kenya-led initiatives include an innovative industrial processing technology by the University of Nairobi, which improves efficiency in leather and fish processing. Maize and finger millet varieties, resistant to the obnoxious Striga weed, being developed by Maseno University, will also benefit from the funding.


Two ICIPE scientists will lead the commercialisation of bio pesticides developed from fungi, and to promote strategies and technologies that will enable disinfestations of pests from fruits and vegetables from Africa, thereby unlocking access to lucrative overseas markets.


Dr. Belay Begashaw, Director General Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa (SDGCA) said that to achieve growth, countries must ensure that guidelines of SDGs are followed.


He observed that economic growth, environmental protection and social inclusion are the key pillars of achieving the goals. He said that governments focus on investing in infrastructure and environmental conservation.

Begashaw said that it is unfortunate that the continent still imports food and also has the highest number of poorest people in the world yet its potential to produce for export is huge. Out of 800 million people suffering from chronic hunger globally, 230 million live in Africa while it spends about 68 billion U.S dollars per year on food imports.