By Mary Hearty

The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) have signed a new five-year cooperation agreement to implement phase III of the Bioresources Innovations Network for Eastern Africa Development Programme (BioInnovate Africa).

The commitment of  US$ 17m for BioInnovate Africa phase III is to further strengthen capacity of scientists in Eastern African universities, research institutes, and private sector to translate their biologically based research outputs, inventions, or technologies into practical solutions that contribute towards increasing household incomes, creating jobs, and reducing poverty in the region.

This support coupled with previous others in BioInnovate Africa phase I (2010 – 2015) and phase II (2016 –2021), becomes the biggest single investment in a regional bioscience research and innovation-driven initiative to date in Eastern Africa, thereby fostering the development of a sustainable bioeconomy.

Scientists will receive support through competitive grants for regional research and innovation collaboration projects administered by icipe/BioInnovate Africa.

The targeted beneficiary countries include Burundi, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.

“Our contribution to icipe for implementing BioInnovate Africa phase III, strengthens Sida’s development cooperation with Eastern Africa, and enables icipe to continue playing an active role in regional development through scientific research, capacity building and innovation,” Dr Karin Sverken, Head of Unit for Justice and Peace, Department of Africa at Sida says.

“Scientists, working collaboratively within a regional context, can accelerate the pace at which we find solutions for pressing needs of society, like climate change, biodiversity, jobs for the youth and poverty reduction.”

Eastern Africa is endowed with biological resources, which sustain the livelihoods of majority of its nearly 400 million inhabitants. The challenge, however, is that minimal value is added to the biological resources and significant portions of it are discarded as waste, thereby polluting the environment.

Furthermore, human activities occasioned by rapid population growth, urbanization, and climate change, put pressure on the biological resources. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report indicates, Africa contributes the least carbon emissions, and yet it is experiencing widespread and escalating loss of its biodiversity with every 0.5oC increase above present-day global warming.

The impacts of climate change are also leading to reduced food production, water shortages, and reduced economic growth. Addressing these and other challenges will require innovations that reduce carbon emissions, conserve biodiversity, and create jobs.

“Our development challenges are not insurmountable,” says Dr Segenet Kelemu, Director General & CEO of icipe. “The region has talented scientists in universities, research institutes and private sector, who can generate knowledge of how to solve these challenges and, through innovation, put the knowledge to practical use in the form of goods and services we use in our daily lives.”

In Dr Kelemu’s view, scientists in Eastern Africa are generating good scientific outputs. If well facilitated, they can co-create solutions that address the region’s development needs, and this is the incentive that icipe is providing to scientists through BioInnovate Africa.

Taking advantage of its biological resource endowment, the region can innovate and build a competitive and sustainable biobased industry and society (bioeconomy) that is now gaining worldwide recognition as the growth pathway of the future.

In the past five years, icipe/BioInnovate Africa supported several regional innovation projects that involved academic scientists working collaboratively with industry and government on projects aimed at improving human and animal nutrition; controlling plant pests, diseases, and weeds;

Others were for controlling human and animal diseases; preventing postharvest losses; converting organic waste into biofertilisers and other products; enhancing bioentrepreneurs capacity; and supporting the development of sustainable bioeconomy strategies and innovation policy activities in the region.

Examples of products that have been successfully tested and are gaining market entry include, biofertilisers from agricultural wastes, a seed delivery system for virus free sweet potato vines,  nutrient enriched foods from sorghum and millet, edible insect enriched food, aroma honey toffees, orange fleshed sweet potato puree for bakery products, black soldier fly larvae for chicken feed, mushroom substrate blocks, and an integrated solution for treating industrial wastewater.

“Scientists in Eastern Africa have demonstrated their ability to be innovators. If well supported and incentivised, they can provide the solutions needed for Africa’s development,” says Dr Claes Kjellstrom, Senior Policy Specialist/Research at Sida. “Scientists use their knowledge to refine the products, and when the products are taken to market, farmers increase their incomes, and hopefully they can live a better life.”

BioInnovate Africa phase III, which officially begins in April 2022, builds on the success of phase II. It will continue supporting value addition to biological materials, including converting biological waste into useful substances, and conserving biodiversity.

However, unlike the previous phases that focused primarily on agriculture and environment, phase III includes health in the thematic area.  Of particular interest is health innovation that responds to disease epidemics and strengthens the region’s capability in surveillance and manufacture of biopharmaceuticals and diagnostics for economically important human diseases.

Health innovations will also involve promoting use of indigenous knowledge, especially identifying active compounds in traditional medicine and standardizing dosages to enhance their efficacy.

Application of digital tools that enhance the value of biological resources in the innovation process like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and biosensing are also encouraged.

Additionally, phase III will involve more policy analyses, and stakeholder engagement with policy makers to implement sustainable bioeconomy strategies.

BioInnovate Africa phase III comes at the right time in history, considering that the period 2020-2030 is a decade for accelerating efforts towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It also aligns well with the sustainability aspirations of the African Union Agenda 2063, and the targets of the East African Community vision 2050 of boosting value addition and agro-processing as the biggest direct employer of all manufacturing industries in the region.