Dr. Phil Mjwara, Director-General Department of Science and Innovation DSI, Republic of South Africa

Partnering with the ICGEB to increase access to biotechnology for Africa

Dr. Phil Mjwara, South Africa’s Director-General of Science and Innovation, writes on our host government’s vision of providing Africa with access to biotechnology in partnership with the ICGEB.

The South African Department of Science and Innovation‘s approach to research, development and innovation priorities in Africa is guided by the Sustainable Development Goals, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa, the Southern African Development Community’s Industrialisation Strategy and Roadmap, and locally focused strategies such as the 2019 White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation and the 2013 South African Bio-economy Strategy. With the aim of enhancing science and innovation-based progress, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has also developed an Africa Engagement Strategy.

South Africa shares similar developmental imperatives to the rest of Africa, particularly in respect of supporting mission-driven research, development and innovation programmes to shift the paradigm in terms of value creation, rural economic development, household food security and the modernisation of sectors, as well as the provision of solutions to multiple health and other challenges. A key issue is the lack of resources (venture capital) for the transfer of technology (biotechnology in particular) to the marketplace.

The Bio-economy Strategy acknowledges the role of South Africa’s biodiversity as an economic engine for the new economy. Science-based “bio-solutions” that recognise all sources of knowledge, including indigenous knowledge systems, can, for instance, be used to manufacture high-value protein products such as biopharmaceuticals and vaccines, produce biofuels, improve and adapt crops, decrease industrial and municipal waste, lower production costs, reduce environmental impacts, improve the quality of products, and enhance performance in a range of economic sectors.

The Department of Science and Innovation is privileged to be part of the ICGEB family

The vision is for South Africa’s bioeconomy to be a significant contributor to the country’s gross domestic product by 2030 through the creation and growth of novel industries that generate and develop bio-based services, products and innovations, with a corresponding increase in new and existing companies that provide and utilise these solutions.

On a macro-economic and developmental level, a thriving bioeconomy has the potential to make the country more competitive internationally (especially in the industrial and agricultural sectors), create more jobs, enhance food security, and create a greener economy as the country shifts towards a low-carbon economy.

As a country, our vision is an African continent that is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and united, and that is part of a just and equitable world. The DSI is mindful that the challenges South Africa faces are largely those facing Africa, and therefore always look at opportunities for partnership with the rest of the continent. In this regard, the ICGEB is a unique partner in helping us achieve some of our goals, in particular those relating to our Bio-economy Strategy. Being a member of the ICGEB means that we are immediately connected to 46 state-of-the-art laboratories and to an interactive network with over 65 member states. The ICGEB plays a key role in biotechnology worldwide, providing excellence in research, training and technology transfer, areas which form a crucial foundation for the knowledge economy.

Many developing countries suffer high disease burdens caused by infectious agents. Modern molecular biology related to human viral and parasitic diseases now offers solutions through more accessible diagnostics, and effective treatment and prevention. While a lot of work happens in laboratories worldwide, research groups in ICGEB components and centres such as those in Italy, India and South Africa are actively engaged in these areas of research. Our ICGEB partnership has been crucial in our response to COVID-19 through information sharing, webinars and the repurposing of the ICGEB’s Cape Town component laboratories to assist with COVID-19 testing during surges. It is the DSI’s intention to build on these experiences to enable Africa to respond more swiftly and effectively to future pandemics.

While communicable diseases remain a huge problem, lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases are a growing problem, and one that our implementation of the Bio-economy Strategy is also starting to address. The interest of the ICGEB member states in research into non-communicable disorders and the push to understand the causes of human disease at the genetic and molecular level now enable the development of innovative therapies and preventive measures in fields of enormous importance for public health, such as cardiovascular disorders, cancer and neurodegeneration. South Africa and the continent are benefiting from research in Trieste, New Delhi, and Cape Town and actively participating in these areas toward achieving the goal of healthy and prosperous societies.

Applied research and product development in the field of biotechnology is central to the ICGEB’s mission. This is another area of alignment with the national Bio-economy Strategy. It is our view that biotechnology can offer practical and sustainable solutions for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

Green technologies are also key in the modernisation of economies. The use of genetic engineering and other modern biological technologies has enormous potential for the production of renewable energy from biological sources. Devising cost-effective processes to produce second-generation biofuels using microalgae, and the identification of novel enzymes effective on cellulosic biomass are two examples of technologies to extract energy from biological sources. In Africa, as elsewhere, there is no doubt that we need to modernise agricultural practices to improve yield and nutritional value.

The Department of Science and Innovation is privileged to be part of the ICGEB family.