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 Organizing Biotechnology Research in Africa
By
Gerda van Roozendaal
 
Keywords:  Policies/Programmes; Africa (Sub-Saharan); Public institute.
Correct citation: Roozendaal, G. van (1995), "Organizing Biotechnology Research in Africa." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 23, p. 12-15.

User­oriented biotechnology and the integration of social sciences in policy planning were two major issues discussed during the regional seminar recently organized by the Intermediary Biotechnology service (IBS). Since many African countries are considering the formulation and implementation of biotechnology policies, the aim of the seminar was to stimulate policy discussion to ensure the integration of agricultural biotechnology in broader national priorities..

During the last three decades developments in the African agricultural research environment have been diverse, as a recent ISNAR Briefing Paper shows. The number of scientists in Africa (including South Africa) grew fourfold, but this has not been paralleled by an equal growth in financial resources, putting considerable constraints on the researchers. Additionally, the share of donor support in agricultural research has increased significantly, in contrast to domestic financing. Since biotechnological research usually requires high initial investment and predominantly has effects only in the long term, this situation calls for careful decisions to be made by governments. Should they invest in biotechnological research at all? What should be the strategic research priorities? What are the potential benefits and costs? How should the research be financed? How can it be planned?

Lack of planning
In his keynote address, Zerubabel Nyiira (Uganda National Council for Science and Technology) stated that most African countries do not have specific policies to set priorities for biotechnological research in the framework of national agricultural needs. R&D institutions are often free to adopt and apply biotechnology within the context of ongoing research and development. He argued that current needs and priorities for applications of biotechnology in Africa must be demand­driven and user­oriented. Decision­makers should create a policy environment which allows biotechnology to thrive in national R&D institutions, or in commercial and industrial systems in Africa.
Carliene Brenner (OECD Development Centre) also emphasized that projects and programmes are often undertaken in the absence of clearly­defined national priorities. Little attention is paid to technology diffusion or marketing mechanisms, or to the demand aspects of biotechnology. Without the incentive of a strong market potential, Brenner argued, private firms are unwilling to take the risk of production and marketing. At the same time, public research institutions tend to be technically ill­equipped and lack the financial resources to move from small to large­scale testing, or to move to pilot plant or large­scale commercial production. This situation, combined with the fact that public expenditures are being reduced due to structural adjustment policies, calls for the promotion of local firms, joint ventures with foreign companies, and the exploitation of public and private sector links.

Conditions for biotechnology investment
John Lynam (Rockefeller Foundation), argued that investments in, and the development of, a biotechnology research capacity in Africa should best take place in phases. Tissue culture, being the first phase, should, besides providing rapid propagation of plant material, also facilitate the development of organizational skills needed to operate and maintain a laboratory. If the current constraints, such as inadequate maintenance of laboratories, unreliable power supplies and inadequate operational budgets, are not solved in the development of a tissue culture capacity, then there is little sense to consider other investments in biotechnology, Lynam stated. For the second phase, in which biotechnological tools such as markers for pests and pathogens or anther culture to shorten breeding cycles are efficiently applied, a functioning breeding programme is, amongst others, a precondition. Only when this is achieved, the last phase, i.e. the development of a capacity to transform and regenerate plants, allowing the insertion of particular gene constructs into varieties, can be entered. However, the preliminary results of a survey conducted during the seminar revealed that many African research institutes are working in the second and even the third phase, while in many countries the first phase is probably underdeveloped.
Even if the technical preconditions for the development of biotechnology are in place, decisions have to be made considering the priorities of biotechnological research and whether biotechnology is worth investing in at all. Not every country can be at the forefront of biotechnology developments, and governments may therefore decide to divert their scarce resources to other areas, as Brenner stated. She emphasized that this is not only an issue for developing countries, but also for developed countries.
Lynam emphasized that especially in the third phase, African national agricultural research systems (NARS) should compare the costs of developing and refining biotechnology for African crops and varieties with the probability that they will be developed elsewhere and could be acquired at a later date at lower costs. Moreover, since biotechnology programmes are often demanding on capital, training budgets and scientific personnel, the benefits and costs of conventional technologies versus biotechnology, should be considered before investing.
This was seconded by C. Chetsanga (Science and Industrial Research and Development Centre, Zimbabwe), who emphasized that, if possible, it should be preferred to tackle a problem by conventional technologies, rather than by searching for biotechnological solutions.
 
Seminar facts

From April 23 to April 27 1995, the Intermediary Biotechnology Service (IBS) organized its second regional meeting on policy issues in agricultural biotechnology, this time in South Africa (for first seminar in Southeast Asia, see Monitor No. 22). Representatives from seven African countries attended the seminar: Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Mauritius and Zimbabwe. Additionally, resource persons from Malawi, Burkina Faso and Burundi and a number of international organizations were present. Different sectors (agriculture, science & technology, industry, and planning) and organizations (farmersÕ organizations and public institutions) were represented.
A report on the seminar, containing full papers and summaries of the discussions, will be available in August 1995. The report on the Asia seminar is available through IBS. 

Contact 
John Komen, IBS, ISNAR
PO Box 93375, 2509 AJ The Hague, the Netherlands.
Phone (+31) 70 3496100; Fax (+31) 70 3819677; E-mail J.KOMEN@CGNET.COM 

Bring in the economists
At the seminar, technical and economic considerations were considered equally important ingredients of the biotechnology decision­making process. Brenner emphasized that it is generally assumed that biotechnology will result in economic benefits such as higher productivity, lower production costs, or smaller crop losses to pests and disease, notwithstanding the fact that little evidence is yet at hand. Since even in industrialized countries few genetically modified plant biotechnology products are yet on the market, little evidence is available which would enable governments to assess economic, social and environmental costs and benefits.
Even though research budgets are limited, this should not mean that socio­economic analyses are forgotten, was the message of Catherine Chan­Halbrendt (IBS). She stated that it is essential that resources are used to develop methodological approaches to address socio­economic issues properly at project, national and international level.
Taking into account these levels of analysis is routine for industry much more than for the public sector. Jane Morris (AECI, South Africa), as one of the few corporate representatives attending the seminar, tackled the issue of economic planning more specifically. A technical­economic analysis of a project, she said, does not necessarily need to be different in industry than in the public sector. In both sectors, the transfer of technology from the laboratory to a range of end users remains a persistent problem. She claimed that the needs of farmers, food processors or consumers should be considered carefully when designing a policy. Several questions need to be asked. Does the end user want the product? What is the size of the market? What is the customer willing to pay for the product? How much will the project cost? In the initial stage of a project, economists should be involved to estimate the financial and economic needs till a product reaches the end user, be it a farmer, industry, or food processor. According to Morris, if there is no net value to the country's economy or commercial development, the project should not go ahead.

Users' needs identified
Closely related to the economic question is the problem of end­users involvement in the project design and implementation. Most of the participants agreed that end­users are primarily the (small­scale) farmers, the main producers in Africa. Other potential users are companies, which use raw materials, and consumers, who might finally determine the success or failure of the biotechnological products.
An experience with priority­setting including different stake­holders and directed towards the concerns of small­scale agriculture was presented by Norah Olembo (Kenya Industrial Property Organization). According to her, setting policy and research priorities for biotechnology are best determined through discussions between stake­holders, including farmers, researchers at the science and management level, and policy makers at the national and international level. While in the long­term this process might be more time and money consuming compared with top­down priority setting, she stated, it might also turn out to be the most sustainable one. However, as she pointed out, a major concern with this approach is that it may develop into a project that becomes easily donor­driven and alienated from top governmental involvement.
John Waweru (Kenya National Farmers' Union) called for more partnerships between farmers and scientists. Farmers are able to give scientists feedback on some suggestions as to the way research is prioritized. Involving farmers should be through representative organizations, instead of claiming farmers' involvement by consulting one farmer. Strengthening research should go hand in hand with strengthening farmers' organizations. Beside being part of the prioritizing process, farmers should also be involved in the technology diffusion.

Limits to success
Although the seminar undoubtedly had a positive function in bringing people together at a regional level to share experiences about the issues involved in developing biotechnology policies, it is hard to asses the impact of the seminar. The actual implementation of possible actions identified during the discussions may encounter several difficulties. For one thing, it will depend on the ability of the country delegates to exercise influence through their organizations at the national level.
Although the involvement of end­users was considered highly important, the question remains whether priority­setting approaches including end­users yield necessarily more successful research results than other approaches. As Olembo observed, so­called 'bottom­up'approaches as used in Kenya may develop into a project which could become "donor­driven and alienated from top governmental involvement" If the priorities set by the 'coalition' of interest groups are not supported by the government, they might not be sustained in the long term, or even not be implemented.
Considering the importance attributed to end­users' involvement, it was striking that not many end­user representatives attended the seminar. Of the 60 people present at the seminar, only about five represented farmers' organizations, while about two companies and no consumers' organizations were represented. Although the aim of the seminar was not to set priorities, even at this stage a larger involvement of end­users would have been desirable. In several papers, the need for appropriate socio­economic analyses was emphasized and in one case company experiences were put forward as an example of the successful integration of economists in project formulation. It should be kept in mind, however, that the decision based on the outcome of a socio­economic analysis might differ between governments and companies. Governments may pursue specific social aims, which do not always result in direct net value to the economy or commercial development in the short term. Furthermore, researchers might be quite reluctant to co­operate with economists in the initial stage of a project. Life scientists might feel restrained by economic calculations in pursuing different research options. This can make the collaboration between these scientists and economists highly complex, but not less desirable.
Gerda van Roozendaal

Sources
The papers used for this article are available through IBS.

P. Pardey, J. Roseboom and N. Beintema (1995), Agricultural Research in Africa: Three decades of development. ISNAR Briefing Paper No. 19, January 1995.



Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with acknowledgement of source.

 


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