Biotechnology to kick-start Africa’s industrialisation

Tissue cultures of Rice plants with the vitamin A genes being grown inside a light room at IRRI.
Tissue cultures of Rice plants with the vitamin A genes being grown inside a light room at IRRI.
Tissue cultures of Rice plants with the vitamin A genes being grown inside a light room at IRRI.

Technology is enhancing the way we do business – it’s revolutionising and adapting it. Across the world, countries are adopting new technologies to help improve their economy and production rates.

Africa, a continent on the rise in terms of economy and population, is beginning to enhance some of the new technologies that experts are declaring as “the future”. As of recent, biotechnology has caught the attention of scientists analysing Africa as a possible way of improving its economy.

Biotechnology is defined as the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes, especially the genetic manipulation of microorganisms for the production of antibiotics, hormones, etc. In the past, it has faced controversy over ethical issues – the main idea of genetically modifying a living thing has drawn huge criticism. But many scientists argue that this is the way the world needs to go.

Already, scientists are turning their attention to the continent, and stating that an industrial development strategy could be built on the back of Africa’s fundamental agricultural sector – putting biotechnology forward as a means to support improved yields, value addition and services that feed into the whole agro-processing value chain.

Getachew Belay, a senior biotechnology policy advisor told Zimpapers Syndication recently on the sidelines of a communication training workshop for journalists on biotechnology and biosafety, that the adoption of genetically modified cotton developed using a bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which naturally produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects such as the bollworm, could increase yields and enhance competitiveness.

With cotton farmers in Africa suffering huge losses of crops due to pest problems, embracing biotechnology could eradicate these long-standing issues for good.

“The most destructive of pests is the African bollworm, which can cause severe losses of up to 100% – like we saw on some cotton fields in Salima here in Malawi,” the Comesa biotech policy advisor told Zimpapers Syndication.

“In unprotected fields pest damage can be very severe and when you look at Bt cotton crop on trial you can see hope that it’s possible for African farmers to increase their yields and competitiveness of their crop on the market.”

A clear example of how embracing this technology can have positive effects: Experts state that using Bt cotton greatly reduces the number of pest infestations and in-turn, this increases yields and improves the livelihoods of cotton growers.

The Bt toxin is inserted into cotton, causing cotton, called Bt cotton, to produce this natural insecticide in its tissues.

Biotechnology experts argue that cotton farmers in Zimbabwe, Malawi and most other African countries, can effectively reduce input costs and control damage from bollworms and other insects that frequently damage cotton by adopting Bt cotton.

Embracing Bt cotton, is one of many technologies that prove biotechnology is a possible route to further progress.

Belay also believes that biotechnology is one of the major tools for achieving industrialisation, something that the continent is on the verge of fully embracing.

In 2016, the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) published a major report on industrialisation in Africa where it asserts that structural transformation in Africa’s economies remains the highest priority and industrialisation is the top strategy for achieving it in practice.

“I’m convinced that biotechnology has many opportunities to drive Africa’s industrialisation,” he told local media.

“We have Bt cotton, Bt maize and soya and biotechnology can enhance the competitiveness of our crops and agricultural products especially when it comes to value addition and beneficiation as it was stipulated in our African industrialisation agenda.

“Already we are seeing the benefits of adopting biotech crops in South Africa. Livestock feed sectors in Zambia and even Zimbabwe cannot compete with South Africa’s GM stock feed which is produced cheaply. We need to adopt this new technology to cut costs.

“Europe relies heavily on GM soya for its livestock feed industry and this has enhanced its competitiveness.”

Africa has a low uptake of biotech food crops due to lack of awareness and stiff resistance, scientists say.

International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter director Margaret Karembu told journalists at the workshop that adoption of agricultural biotechnology has lagged behind compared to the rapid rates seen in the medical and health sectors.

“Where are we as Africans? This is the question, we need to think seriously about the good work (on agricultural biotechnology) going on in our labs,” she said.

“What is our place in the global biotechnology space? We need [to] reclaim it and improve the livelihoods of our farmers across the continent.”

Karembu said lack of awareness and a constrained regulatory environment had also slowed down the uptake of agricultural biotechnology.

As other regions around the world have started to notice the vast improvements that embracing technology can bring, Africa is slowly waking up to the possibly of it becoming a pioneer of linking science with business, and creating more opportunities for its people and its various economies.