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Africa resilient: life sciences innovation for achieving health and food security

Remarks by the Minister of Higher Education, Science And Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, on the occasion of the 5th Bio Africa Convention 2022 held at the Durban International Convention Centre (ICC)- South Africa

As some of you may be aware, both the 2020 and 2021 Bio Africa Conventions were virtual as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Despite this, the 2021 Convention attracted a staggering one thousand three hundred and eight (1308) attendees from at least thirty-nine (39) countries. There is therefore in a way underscores the importance of this 5th Convention held under the theme: “Africa Resilient, Life Sciences innovation for achieving Health and food security”

The organisers of this year’s Convention could not have chosen a more apt theme, intended to inspire Africa’s policy makers, scientists and social actors to steer our continent away from being only a knowledge consuming region and turning it into a self-reliant, knowledge generating and innovating one. 

As a country, the objectives of this Convention perfectly align with our 2019 White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation and our Science, Technology and Innovation Decadal Plan 2021-2031, whose key objectives include accelerating the implementation of the pan-African STI agenda and focusing on inclusivity, transformation, SMME support and job creation amongst others.

The Decadal Plan is premised on advancing a whole- of-government approach and ultimately a whole-of- society approach to innovation in South Africa. We have begun with our work to establish a standing ministerial-level Science Technology and Innovation (STI) committee, involving key ministries, chaired by myself, and our President, Cyril Ramaphosa will be hosting an annual STI Plenary which will include business, government, academia and civil society.

I must indicate that our goal is to ensure a ‘just transition’ in both our traditional economic sectors, as well as to lay the foundation for the emergence of new economic sectors, including in the spheres of bio-diversity and the digital economy.

To come close to achieving the overarching objective of this Convention, as articulated in this conference theme, there are several things that I believe we must focus on. 

As we collectively responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa also must deal with the wider set of crises, which are global in nature, but have a specific manifestation and impact in our continent; that of social inequality, of climate change, of technological disruption, and linked to all the above: a crisis of the global capitalist system. 

In fact, we cannot speak of a sustainable, let alone equal society, unless and until we fundamentally change the nature of the global economic and social order.

Importance of Bio-economy

Firstly, this is amongst the reason for African policy makers, scientists and other social actors need to urgently understand and embrace the importance of the bio-economy for Africa’s socio-economic development and sustainability.

Across the world, the concept of a bio-economy is being embraced as a sustainable model that brings together all commercial activity surrounding the use of renewable biological resources such as crops, forests, animals and micro-organisms, agricultural waste and residual materials.

This is being done with the view to address challenges related to food security, health, biodiversity and environmental protection, energy and industrial processes. It is therefore no exaggeration to state that the very survival of humanity is dependent on how we manage the earth’s resources.

The second important challenge relates to inequality on our continent. According to OXFAM: “Africa is the second most unequal continent in the world, and home to seven of the most unequal countries. The richest 0.0001% own 40% of the wealth of the entire continent. Africa’s three richest billionaire men have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the population of Africa, approximately 650 million people.”

As policy makers, scientists and social actors, we must take well-thought, collaborative and decisive action on how to turn Africa into an innovative and self-reliant continent, as enjoined by the theme of this Convention.

To our advantage, we have an incredibly rich biodiversity, and a relatively large proportion of arable land. All this puts us in a favourable position to translate our biodiversity into a viable, competitive and sustainable bio economy.  

We are therefore duty bound to use our biodiversity and arable land to take Africa and her people out of the trap of grinding and debilitating poverty. An important matter that I would urge that you reflect upon is that of the absolute necessity to identify and mobilise sources to fund research development and innovation in Africa in line with the priorities and challenges facing our continent. We cannot be able to advance most of our research, science, technology and innovation goals unless we have our own resources to fund research and be less dependent on donor-driven funding.

African countries embrace of bio-economy

The third issue we must focus on is to encourage and support more African countries to not just embrace the importance of the bio-economy, but for them to proactively build the necessary policy, institutional and scientific capacity to build a viable bio economy in Africa. And this is linked to the fundamental task of a research funding regime that is based on advancing the African agenda.

This task is particularly urgent if we consider the observations by the United Nations on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on food security. 

The United Nations (UN) states that “In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, world hunger increased substantially – estimates from the State of Food Security and Nutrition around the World (SOFI) reveal that as many as 161 million people fell into hunger between 2019 and 2020, bringing the world´s total to 811 million people facing food insufficiency. In other words, about one in 10 people in the world went to bed without enough nutrition in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The UN further observes that “Africa has been particularly vulnerable: about 21% of people on the continent suffered from hunger in 2020, a total of 282 million people. Between 2019 and 2020, in the aftermath of the pandemic, 46 million people became hungry in Africa. No other region on the world presents a higher share of its population suffering from food insecurity.”

In this respect, whilst we recognize the work that is done by South Africa, as a continent must commend the work that is being done by other African countries such as Namibia, Uganda, Ghana and Kenya that have implemented several policy and institutional measures to promote the sustainable management and use of their biodiversity. 

Those African countries that are yet to implement these measures, can learn from the experiences of these countries. Some of the things to learn include the following-

  • The importance of identifying gateway sectors through which to initiate the development of transition to a bio-economy;
  • Strengthening links to R&D and markets for new bio-products and bio-solutions;
  • Developing demand for bio-products and bio-solutions; 
  • Regulating sustainability incentives and managing trade-offs; and 
  • Setting up independent national advisory boards to inform and guide the development of bio-economies.

Impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods

The fourth issue relates to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on livelihoods. 

A 2021 study by Kenya’s Daystar University reveals that “The negative effect of Covid-19 to the world economy is estimated to be $12 trillion by 2021. During the same period, over 400 million full-time jobs were lost globally by the second quarter of 2020. In Africa, the pandemic led to a negative growth of-5.1% by 2020 thereby plunging the continent into the worst recession in 25 years.”

The study further states that “For small and medium enterprises (SMEs) which employs between 70% and 90% of the population the effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic has been even more severe with 87% of business owners uncertain the future of their businesses. The biggest challenges to business survival were associated inadequate financing support, uncertainty, lack of government support and numerous measures meant to curb COVID-19 such as lockdowns”.

In terms of lessons learnt from Covid-19, my Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) coordinated a package of responses across the NSI to address South Africa’s readiness for the impact of COVID-19.  The response has been centred on four pillars namely; 1. analytics and modelling, 2. research and innovation, 3. manufacturing and 4. international cooperation initiatives in support of the global response to the pandemic.

We reallocated substantial financial resources to fund COVID-19 projects, including epidemiological studies and genomic surveillance that placed South African scientists on the international map, working with other countries to find solutions to the pandemic. 

The KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) identified the coronavirus beta variant. 

The KRISP team’s genome sequencing demonstrated South Africa’s leadership in this area on a world stage and contributed to the understanding of emerging variants and their effect on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. 

This work informed government decision-making on which vaccines to procure, with genomic surveillance becoming a critical component of a targeted response to the epidemic throughout the country. KRISP’s research has been used to inform the planning and responses of other countries as well. 

As South Africa we also developed our own diagnostics and reagents needed to diagnose COVID-19 cases.  The awarding of the Global mRNA technology transfer hub to South Africa is also acknowledgement of the abilities of the South African scientists.

My Department of Science and Innovation’s (DSI) African Natural Medicines Platform worked closely with the WHO-Regional Office for Africa, through its Advisory and Expect Committee on African Medicines visited South Africa to monitor the country’s capability in terms of research, innovation, manufacturing and clinical utilisation of African Natural Medicines.  

Supported by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the African Union Commission and the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership’s, the WHO-AFRO affirmed that South Africa is best placed to provide continental leadership in research and manufacturing of these health products, including the role of traditional health practitioner. 

Food security

With regards to food security resilience, some of the lessons we learnt in relation to agriculture were in nutrition security, supply chains and digital agriculture system.  

Collaborative work among government departments, the business sector and active involvement of communities and SMMEs demonstrated the importance of inclusivity for a resilient food and nutrition sector.  

South Africa is promoting the inclusion of all forms of food products, especially under-utilised indigenous crops which are readily available across the continent.  

It must be remembered that the AU declared this 2022 the “Year of Nutrition” 

There has been increased efforts and commitment to prioritise and invest in nutrition at the continental level. Therefore, upholding the cultural heritage and practices of Africans includes the consumption of staple and indigenous African foods given their nutritional value and potential to contribute towards food security and health of the African population. 

Through its Indigenous Knowledge-Based Nutraceutical Platform and the Agricultural Biotechnology Innovation Programme, the DSI supported various communities and SMMEs with technologies that added value to their crops and products across provinces.  

Some of our flagship programmes are in soya, maize, moringa, Bambara nuts, amadumbe, cowpea, numerous green leafy vegetables and health infusions.  

In order for Africa to be resilient, especially in cases of disasters and pandemics, it is absolutely essential to deliberately foster an interface of indigenous knowledge and modernisation through digitization.  

Working with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), we co-launched a National Biosecurity Research Hub later this year.  

This hub will prioritize both the generation of digital scientific information hubs coupled with development of digitization platforms, to support disease management, surveillance and monitoring for both domestic and international trade.  

These models are being shared with other African countries and will contribute a great deal to continental resilience against natural, pandemics and wars.

Informed by all this, it is extremely important that this Convention comes up with concrete policy actions that must be undertaken by African governments to enable small businesses, especially in the Indigenous Knowledge System sector (IKS), to recover from the devastating impact of the Covid 19 pandemic. 

This will give them an opportunity to increase their output and gain easy access to local and international markets.

AU Agenda 2063

In conclusion, South Africa views this 5th Convention also as part of the response to the African Union’s (AU) AGENDA 2063, which is the continent’s strategic framework that aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development. 

It is therefore my sincere hope that this Convention, will make a significant contribution to the development of sustainable solutions that African governments can adopt, with the view to addressing some of the main problems facing our continent such as food insecurity, climate change and health innovation, and continue to promote the importance of co-operation between African governments and other sectors of society.