The late 20th century was a period of unprecedented advancement in information and communications technology. The rapid adoption of mobile phones in Africa laid the groundwork for a digital economy.
According to a new study by the Stockholm Environment Institute, Creating Sustainable Bioeconomies: The Bioscience Revolution in Europe and Africa, new opportunities for economic transformation are already being built on Africa’s abundant biological resources. The emerging bioeconomy has the potential to transform primary production, especially in agriculture, aquaculture, forestry, health and industry.
The drivers for the new bioeconomy are advances in genetics, biology, ecology, information technology, and engineering.
The key enabler of the digital economy was advances physics and engineering. The drivers for the new bioeconomy are advances in genetics, biology, ecology, information technology, and engineering. The convergence of genetics and computer engineering has dramatically reduced the sequencing cost of genomes of organisms from $100 million in 2001 to about $1,000 in 2016. The ability to rapidly sequence plant genomes will enable enhancements in agriculture, while the ability to rapidly sequence human genomes will enable personalized medicines that are tailored to individual patients.
This makes it possible to have another look at Africa’s biodiversity to identify new traits of economic and ecological significance. New tools such as gene editing have also lowered the barriers for entry and expanded opportunities for innovation.
Four examples illustrate the potential for bioeconomy in Africa. With gene editing, plant engineers have demonstrated the ability to rapidly develop new drought-tolerant plants that can be used in agriculture and ecosystem restoration.
Second, in the area of human health, Africa possesses both marine and terrestrial biomaterials that will add high value to healthcare. Mauritius, for example, has launched an ambitious research program to position itself as hub for using Africa’s indigenous knowledge and biological resources to develop new bioproducts, biocosmetics, bionutraceuticals and biopharmaceuticals for the global market.
The digital revolution relied on existing technologies, the new bioeconomy will involve more local research and commercialization.
In the area of marine biomaterials, for instance, mussels are a valuable source of adhesives that can serve as tissue glues to prevent bleeding from wounds. Marine sponges can serve as scaffolds for bone regeneration. Such biologically-inspired materials cannot only be used directly, but can also provide ideas for the design of novel materials. For example, the Namib desert beetle has helped researchers figure out how to extract water from thin air.
In the area of terrestrial biomaterials, textiles such as silk can be used for tissue regeneration, as well as for wound closure and even vaccine transport. Soy can be used as a bone filler, and cotton can be spun into nanofibers for human tissue repair. These naturally-derived materials are inherently compatible with the human body.
Many of the materials can be derived from residue of staple crops such as corn and rice. Others can be extracted from plants such as bamboo. Many African plants contain natural fibers with diverse medical applications. Countries such as Burkina Faso with a strong cotton industry can expand their bioeconomies by including other natural fibers.
Third, the production of new specialty chemicals will not only help promote sustainable industrial development, but will expand Africa’s product base. Bioethanol plants, for example, can be adapted to produce specialty chemicals as is done at Agro-Chemical & Food Company (ACFC) in Kenya. ACFC started in the 1970s as a fuel ethanol firm. But the venture failed because of lack of cooperation from oil firms that objected to blending ethanol with gasoline.
Finally, the large number of data from the sequencing of genomes and the need to characterize biomaterials will stimulate growth in research and enterprises in emerging fields such as bioengineering and bioinformatics.
Creating a new bioeconomy will involve at least five key elements: commitment to sustainability; identification of entry points and creation of innovation ecosystems; repositioning universities as innovation hubs; fostering innovation policies and leveraging quality science advice; and relying on science and technology diplomacy to build new international partnerships.
The need to promote the sustainability transition in Africa provides the best policy context for the bioeconomy. Other complementary goals such as responding to climate change make more sense when views through the sustainability lens. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide political legitimacy for the efforts.
Africa’s digital revolution started in isolated niches to use mobile phones to meet communications needs. The bioeconomy revolution can be started through a wide range of opportunities in agriculture, health and industry.
Such technology niches can then be expanded to cover other supporting technologies and services to create regional innovation ecosystems. Viewed this way, every farm, fish processing plant or brewery is a potential starting for the new bioeconomy.
Unlike the digital revolution that relied on pre-existing technologies, the new bioeconomy will involve more local research, teaching and commercialization. This will require greater involvement of local universities, especially those with an entrepreneurial inclination.
High-level government coordination of bioeconomy activities will be needed given the linkages between activities across different sectors. Equally important will be the need for systematic science technology advice to leaders so they can make timely and informed decisions.
Finally, the new bioeconomy is emerging at a time when governments around the world are strengthening their science and technology diplomacy. The new bioeconomy offers opportunities for Africa to forge new technology partners with other countries and regional groupings such as the European Union or individual nations such as Sweden.
Building the human capacity needed to advance Africa’s bioeconomy is emerging as a strategic priority. That is we included it as a module in an executive program on Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Africa recently conducted at Harvard Kennedy School.
The program attracted 36 participants from nine African countries (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Seychelles and Uganda) and the African Union’s NEPAD Agency. It is instructive that three of these countries (Burkina Faso, Mauritius and the Seychelles) had identified bioeconomy as their priority.
Africa’s bioeconomy is likely to build on current efforts to promote digital innovation, agricultural renewal, biomedical research and industrial development. It will not be a separate sector but addition to the growing sophistication of African economies.