For many people, developing the bioeconomy is about reducing mankind’s massive reliance on fossil resources by replacing fossil-derived fuels, materials and chemicals with biological-based alternatives. But in countries of the global South where smallholders are often trapped in poverty by low agricultural productivity and poor market access, bioeconomy development could be a key to increase livelihoods, health and economies.

“One of the most exciting things about Global Bioeconomy Summit 2018 is the attention being given to the development of sustainable bioeconomies in Africa and other parts of the global South,” says Ivar Virgin. “It is high time to put bioeconomy development in the global South – and the particular challenges and opportunities – on the radar, and that is exactly what we are trying to do with the new SEI Initiative on Governing Bioeconomy Pathways.

Field of maize in South Africa

A field of maize in South Africa Photo: Getty Images / Hannes Thirion

The Global Bioeconomy Summit (GBS 2018) takes place in Berlin, 19–20 April. It is the biggest international forum on the bioeconomy. It gives people from many sectors and countries an opportunity to share their ideas and experiences, and It also provides a chance for dialogue on the different ways the bioeconomy can contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Whereas GBS 2015 largely focused on the enormous and rapid technological and scientific advances underpinning the development of the bioeconomy, GBS 2018 will also be looking in depth at how to develop governance mechanisms – including national bioeconomy strategies and policy agendas – that support bioeconomy development in a way that best supports the 2030 Agenda. In that sense it closely aligns with work under the new SEI Initiative.

Ivar Virgin is serving on the International Advisory Council (IAC) for the summit, and will also be moderating a discussion on opportunities and challenges for bioeconomic transformation in Africa. (SEI’s Holger Hoff will moderate a discussion on the same session on integration of African bioeconomies in the global context, and implications for achieving the SDGs.)

“I was invited to join the IAC by Joachim von Braun, who is chairman of the German Bioeconomy Council, which organizes the summit,” explains Virgin. “We’d asked him to write the foreword of our 2017 book Creating Sustainable Bioeconomies: The Bioscience Revolution in Europe and Africa, so he was aware of SEI’s work on bioscience capacity building and bioeconomy development in Africa, which fits very well with this year’s GBS agenda.

“Countries in the South, particularly in Africa, have not yet started to look serious at how they can take advantage of local, regional and global emerging bioeconomies. What I hope for in our discussions on Africa is an active dialogue on strategies for bioeconomy development in African countries as well as on opportunities for international collaboration to support them. Hopefully we will be able to identify and broadly agree on the key challenges in African countries concerning the development of bioeconomies – for example how to connect African smallholders to the emerging bioeconomy markets, value chains and agro-processing opportunities; how to resolve issues of resource competition and environmental risks; how to make innovation agendas more inclusive.”

Once the Global Bioeconomy Summit ends, Ivar will go back to Stockholm for the kick-off meeting of the SEI Initiative on Governing Bioeconomy Pathways. This new research initiative aims to better articulate the alternative pathways available for bioeconomy development, and to identify the policies, institutions and governance mechanisms that can facilitate them.

“My hope is that GBS 2018 will result in more shared visions and better understanding of what is needed to speed up transitions to sustainable bioeconomies that support broader sustainable development in different parts of the world, not least Africa. I also hope that we can come up with concrete ideas on a global mechanism for knowledge exchange and coordination on bioeconomy policies and strategies.

“And of course, it’s an ideal opportunity to present the new SEI Initiative to a broad global audience.”