5th BIO Africa Convention held under the theme "Africa Resilient: Life sciences innovation for achieving health and food security"

Africa's collective response to the global Covid-19 pandemic should serve as a blueprint for the continent, as it grapples with a number of crises that are global in nature, like social inequality, climate change and technological disruption – and linked to all of these, the crisis of the global capitalist system, said Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Dr Blade Nzimande.

 

Addressing the 5th Bio Africa Convention via Zoom, the Minister said that, until we fundamentally change the nature of the global economic and social order, we cannot speak of a sustainable, let alone equal society.

 

Held since 2018, in partnership with BIO International with support from United States of America, India, Australia and Canada, the convention is managed by AfricaBio, a non-profit organisation in the biotechnology sector, and co-funded by the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), an entity of the Department of Science and Innovation.

 

The convention aims to create a platform for policy makers to convey African bio-based policy messages to the global community through plenaries and side events; to be a networking platform for local business executives to make deals towards joint or collaborative research and the development of bio-products and services; to create a platform for international and local investors to source innovation solutions developed in Africa for future investment and commercialisation; and to be a space for researchers, indigenous knowledge holders, small and medium enterprises, entrepreneurs, technology transfer offices and investors to have access to partnering opportunities.

 

The focus areas for the 5th BIO Africa Convention 2022 are health innovation, agricultural biotechnology, indigenous knowledge-based technology innovation, and industrial biotechnology.  The convention is aimed at supporting the growing bioeconomy on the continent.  It is also aimed at showcasing emerging innovations, successes and best practices from African countries.  There will be sessions on healthcare innovation in the age of the pandemic, funding, finance and investment, market access, food security, indigenous knowledge-based innovation, manufacturing and industrialisation, cannabis industrialisation and collaborations between the Global North and Global South, among other topics.

 

The focus is on addressing challenges related to food security, health, biodiversity and environmental protection, energy and industrial processes. It is no exaggeration to state that the survival of humanity depends on how we manage the Earth's resources.

 

The Minister believes that the importance of the bioeconomy for Africa's socio-economic development and sustainability cannot be overstated.

 

"Across the world, the concept of a bioeconomy 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," he said.

 

During the opening plenary, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) Director, Dr Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, expressed the hope that Africa would be manufacturing 60% of all the human vaccine it needed by 2040.

 

He lamented the fact that Africa held no intellectual property related to any of the human vaccines it was currently using, and manufactured only 1% of these locally, leaving the continent with no health security, as the Covid-19 pandemic painfully taught us.

 

Dr Ouma spoke about the Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) launched in 2021 by the African Union. The PAVM is intended to change the current situation, which is that Africa imports 90% of its human vaccines.

 

"I invite you to join us at Africa CDC and the African Union as we make this vision and ambition a reality. Let us innovate and manufacture here in Africa," he said.

 

"Agenda 2063 lays out Africa's strategic framework for sustainable development and is a manifestation of pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity," said Dr Ouma.

 

He said every aspect of this vision required innovation and local production, and that lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic had convinced Africa CDC that the way Africa plans and handles disease threats must change.

 

Work to develop Africa's capacities in these sectors has begun. The Director-General of Science and Innovation, Dr Phil Mjwara, said government investments in biotechnology in South Africa were yielding significant results.

 

Last year, the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP) made headlines when it discovered the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, when scientists in South Africa had long been doing research on epidemics.

 

Dr Mjwara said the establishment of the technology transfer hub for mRNA vaccines in Cape Town, comprising biotech companies Afrigen and Biovac, would spread this technology to developing countries by training and licensing manufacturers to produce their own vaccines for national and regional use.

 

The mRNA technology is not just for fighting Covid-19. It can be adapted to tackle other diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, putting countries in the driver's seat to produce the tools required to meet their health needs.

 

"This will ensure that Africa and other low-income countries have the capacity to develop their own vaccines. We are making headway in Africa; we are learning from our partners. However, new challenges keep coming up. Biotechnology is the most important technology to respond to them," said Dr Mjwara.

 

He added that government was investing in science, technology and innovation to improve access to healthcare in South Africa, and its success was evident from the number of start-ups present at the BIO Africa Convention.

 

President of AfricaBio, Dr Nhlanhla Msomi, said the start-up exhibition was the most interesting part of the event, and evidence of the quest to create self-sustainability in Africa.

 

"Globally, start-ups are the life-blood that ultimately feeds into the development of industry and its products," said Dr Msomi, adding that the companies exhibiting were drawn from across the continent, and were the "the future stars".

 

Several other exciting local start-ups are being showcased, ranging from the development of biochemical reagents, through therapeutic antibodies, to laboratory-manufactured meats.

 

US-based Dr Michelle McMurry-Heath, CEO and President of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, hailed South Africa's biotechnology infrastructure, saying that investing in science and technology certainly paid off.

 

This international event brings business leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, regulatory authorities and policymakers under one roof, and is hailed as an ideal platform to reach the broader biotechnology community of Africa for the commercialisation of local innovations.

 

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