Driving bio-innovation is a highly complex and difficult enterprise. It involves combining the strategic interests of both the public and private sectors. It needs to service the evolving needs of the health, agriculture and manufacturing sectors, while coping with the rapidly changing technological landscape, the highly regulated product environment, and the urgent needs of jobseekers and entrepreneurs.
However, "we are seeing some of the fruits of our efforts", said the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, at the opening of the 2023 BIO Africa Convention, which is currently being held in Durban.
Counted among the successes of these efforts is the number of biotechnology companies in the country, which has grown from 78 in 2005 to more than 240 today. Some of these companies are using biotechnology to help protect our agricultural export industries, while others have earned recognition from global bodies such as the World Health Organization in efforts such as the creation of an mRNA vaccine hub for Africa.
The theme of the sixth edition of the convention, which is running from 4 to 6 September, is "Re-imagining Biotechnology Innovation for Africa's Development and Security". The convention features biotechnology innovations pertaining to the health, energy, agriculture and entrepreneurial sectors.
Minister Nzimande told delegates that this forum serves as a space for Africa to discuss its aspirations for the continental bioeconomy.
"It is an opportunity for Africa to grasp the opportunity of biotechnology; an opportunity that continues to grow and expand, and shows no signs of plateauing. The need for biotechnologies and biotechnology products is only growing as we enter the realm of climate change, fossil fuel replacement, sustainable development and healthcare," said the Minister.
The role of the Department of Science and Innovation, as per the 2013 Bio-economy Strategy, is threefold. It includes (1) building strategic innovation competencies; (2) implementing strategic innovation programmes; and (3) promoting awareness, teamwork and cooperation among all stakeholders towards national objectives.
The Department has made significant progress in all these areas, mainly in the fields of health innovation, agriculture innovation, industrial biotechnology, and indigenous knowledge-based technology innovation. The South African bioeconomy, at a conservative estimate, forms approximately 8,3% of the economy and employs roughly 1,5 million people across skillsets.
Dr Vuyisile Phehane, Executive for Bio-Economy at the Technology Innovation Agency, said the convention is the culmination of an enormous collective effort, with contributions from individuals and many institutions from Africa and beyond.
He said the bioeconomy potentials of African countries are sub-optimal when compared with those of countries that have dedicated bioeconomy policies or strategies.
"South Africa, the only African country with a defined bioeconomy strategy, has the highest bioeconomy readiness index on the continent," he said.
South Africa's targeted investments in research, innovation, education, stakeholder engagement, market development support, and robust regulation have attracted significant private sector investment. Such investments have the potential to decrease unemployment in the country, while there are lessons to be learned from our neighbours.
"With 10 to 12 million youth entering the workforce every year, there are only 3,1 million new jobs being created. It is our strong belief that the bioeconomy will contribute to job creation, and we will look to establish regional bioeconomy strategies, as has been done in East Africa," he added.
The event attracted biotechnology stakeholders from across the world and includes parallel sessions, plenaries and an exhibition featuring about 100 exhibitors.
Start-up and small businesses are also participating in the Start-up Stadium, a dedicated space that offers a unique opportunity for them to gain exposure, network with industry veterans and potential investors, and receive valuable feedback from experts in the field.
Prof. Anicia Peters, CEO of the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology in Namibia, encouraged delegates to continue working to address societal challenges and push the boundaries of biotechnology; adding that this could only be achieved if they build strong partnerships.
By harnessing the potential of bio-innovations, "we can address complex challenges affecting us and drive economic growth. Should we do these, we can build a brighter future for our continent and the world," she said.
Prof. Peters said that, considering that biotechnology can solve social challenges such as various health diseases, food insecurity, and the impacts of environmental changes, efforts like the BIO Africa convention must be embraced as they can catalyse economic growth, improve healthcare and enhance environmental sustainability.
Namibia is creating an enabling policy environment by developing its National Bioeconomy Strategy (2023-2028), which aims to accelerate the deployment of innovations and the sustainable use of biological resources.