By Gift Briton

Challenges facing Africa, including food insecurity, may exacerbate if the continent continues to drag behind the world in adopting emerging technologies, several scientists said at the ongoing East Africa Community (EAC) Regional Science Technology and Innovation conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

According to Prof. Richard Oduor, the Chair of Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium, technologies, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have a lifespan and countries must take advantage of them when they still make sense to solve pressing challenges.

“We will forever be chasing technology and continue experiencing the problems that we have if we continue lagging behind in adoption. Unfortunately, the climate is changing and that is going to impact us so badly. Our food and health security are likely to be affected heavily. African governments should move very fast and be ahead of the technology so that we benefit at the time when technologies are still optimal because there will be another innovation that will be better than what is currently available,” Prof. Oduor told ScienceAfrica in an interview.

According to the distinguished Scientist, for over thirty years, most African countries have failed to take advantage of GMO technology to boost food security for their populations, warning that Africa is just about to lose out on another great technology known as genome editing which according to him is the new game changer in the field of biotechnology.

Prof. Richard Oduor making a keynote speech at the conference

“To avoid losing out, countries need to have serious think tanks whose duty would be to figure out what are the emerging technologies and this can go beyond just the GMOs. Remember we are at an age where we are talking about artificial intelligence (AI). Those are new things that will disrupt our culture, beliefs and even the way we do things. My advice for governments therefore is to stop trading technologies. Technologies when they come, we need to quickly set up a team to look and advise on the matter. So, let’s embrace technologies, create think tanks, and furnish our laboratories so that they can cope with emerging trends and cutting-edge technologies,” Prof. Oduor added.

“For instance, for the last ten years that GMO crops have been banned in Kenya, we have lost funding because there is no way our development partners and donors will be funding us for things that the government has banned. Over the ten years, young scholars and scientists could also not go out there to practice what they have learnt in the university because of the ban. We also lost opportunities to set up start-ups in areas that have biotechnology because of the ban.”

The distinguished Professor urges Africans to build trust in their local institutions to ease the acceptability and adoption of new technologies, adding that “people must start developing interest and confidence in local scientists.”

Additionally, he said there is need to have regulatory systems that are foolproof so that research work is done within an environment that speaks to integrity and ethics. This means involving the public during commencement of some of these projects so that they are part of the process. This reduces altercations when bringing in innovations.

“As scientists, we are not speaking very well to the public and even if we bother to, we do not speak in a language that they understand. That lowers the trust because the public has a language and we must be able to speak that language as scientists so that we are at the same level,” the professor notes, adding that “half the time they do not come to us because we don’t speak their language and even if we bother to we still pitch so high so we lose them in the process and yet they are the people to benefit from these technologies we purport to be doing in the lab.”

Dr. Roy Mugira, Chief Executive Officer, the National Biosafety Authority, Kenya in his remarks during a plenary session at the same conference noted: “One of the things we have learnt from the previous experience with GMO is that we allowed discussions around regulation safety concerns to go ahead of the communication and technology. As a result, there were a lot of roadblocks and fear.”

He noted that in partnership with the African Union, a comprehensive communication strategy for genome editing in Africa has been developed. “We want to first get people to know about the technology before it gets into people’s hands. So, as the technology is developing, communication, understanding and public awareness must go hand in hand with the technology,” Dr. Mugira said.