ACGT exemplifies the power of collaboration in boosting biotech innovation in Africa

The ACGT was recently represented by its Director, Prof Jane Morris, at the launch of the Innovation for Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction towards an Enabling Environment for Systems of Innovation of Southern Africa (ISP-TEESA) in Windhoek, Namibia from 22 to 25 June.

ISP-TEESA is a programme of the Regional Agricultural and Environmental Initiatives Network – Africa (RAEIN-AFRICA) and aims to develop, promote and harmonise science, technology and innovation polices in the region, build a pool of human capacity resources for scientific research and technological development and also promote public understanding in the areas of science, technology and innovation.

Prof Morris’ keynote address, titled ‘Innovation Systems in Biotechnology – Addressing Africa’s challenges’, spoke to the development of innovation systems and how to use biotechnology to sustainably address the needs of the poor. Central to her presentation was the description of what she has termed as ‘Africa’s dilemma’. According to Prof Morris, biotechnology innovation so far has not occurred in Africa to any major extent. Among the factors contributing to this are a lack of sufficient long-term investment by governments in R&D; a relatively underdeveloped private sector; limited purchasing power and access to markets; and some reluctance to adapt and adopt technologies developed elsewhere in the world.

She says that in an increasingly internationalised and competitive world, the needs of the poor have to be addressed in the context of major global trends. The major social, environmental and economic challenges in Africa will require radical, rather than incremental, innovation. “If we are going to make biotechnology work in Africa, we have to develop completely new innovation systems. If we don’t do that, we will basically be left sitting on the sidelines”.

According to her, 5th and 6th generation innovation – the space in which the ACGT plays – require the creation of collaborative networks, partnerships and social relations in order to stimulate knowledge innovation. The ACGT itself is an example of the use of collaboration to build innovation, she says. Activities such as participation in the Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products (SABINA) network programme and the current capacity audit being undertaken within ACGT partner and affiliate organisations demonstrate the importance of partnerships and cross-boundary collaboration.

The SABINA network includes the three ACGT partner institutions as well as the University of Malawi, University of Namibia and University of Dar es Salaam, while the capacity audit covers the CSIR, University of Pretoria, Wits University, and ACGT affiliate institutions – the Universities of Johannesburg and Limpopo. The latter initiative is being undertaken with the aim of identifying potential areas for collaboration and the availability of equipment within each institution to the other institutions. In addition, the capacity audit will be a key input to a needs analysis process that will identify whether there are common issues that exist and that the five institutions can work together to address.

“While the core focus of the audit has been on advanced biotechnology, we have now spread into the broader area of biosciences and life sciences in general, as very often we apply advanced technologies in other areas. If we can harness and bring together this varied expertise, we greatly increase the potential to create more innovative solutions”, says Prof Morris.