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Global Bioeconomy Summit 2018 – Opportunities and challenges in Africa

insights from the 2018 Global Bioeconomy Summit in Berlin. Ivar Virgin (SEI) second from the right.

During the summit, held in Berlin on 19–20 April, 70 European and African experts took part in 14 parallel sessions. Discussions focused on how to tackle challenges and grasp opportunities for integrating regional African bioeconomies into a global bioeconomy, while at the same time aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ivar Virgin / Published on 14 June 2018

Here we present some insights that emerged from the Summit, and a set of recommendations based on them for driving the bioeconomy in Africa, especially from the workshop on Bioeconomy World Regions: Africa.

Beyond food, feed and fibre

Speakers made the point that it is vital to move biomass production and processing beyond food, feed and fibre, to include a wide range of value-added products, such as biofuels or bioplastics. These products have the potential to be applied in many sectors ranging from pharmaceuticals and green chemicals to industrial materials and energy.

Optimizing biomass use

Many African countries are lucky enough to be endowed with an abundant spread of natural resources that includes approximately 60% of the world’s arable land, vast freshwater and marine reserves plus the significant potential for harnessing solar energy. However, resources are unevenly distributed and agro-ecological niches and biomass conditions vary widely across the continent because of constraints on water, land, infrastructure and markets.

Continued improvements in biomass productivity and an optimization of biomass use, combined with a viable bio-business sector that can add value to primary production, has the potential to drive a broader African bio-based economic growth.

Currently, the African bioprocessing sector is running at a suboptimal level and produces large amounts of waste which have led to severe environmental problems. For emerging African bioeconomies, it is important to transform the sector so that it adds value to primary production while at the same time converting waste into valuable products in a resource efficient and environmentally friendly way.

It is vital to move biomass production and processing beyond food. Photo: Abadonian/Getty Images.

Difficult questions

Governments and policy-makers in the region must answer many complex questions in order to develop a holistic bioeconomy strategy. Here are some that emerged at the summit.

One of the most pressing is how can countries in sub-Saharan Africa make the most of the substantial biological resources available to them, using new technologies and new market conditions, and do this with constraints on financial, technical and industrial resources?

What type of investments in science and technology platforms and innovation, as well as natural resource management and productions systems, can best connect small-scale farmers to markets, value chains and agro-processing opportunities?

What specific investments are needed and how can capacity be built around them? What type and scope of strategies are needed and what policies must be put in place? There is also a need to thrash out the best types of model for R&D, entrepreneurship, and business and financing.

Finally, how do countries ensure that investments in the bioeconomy ensure that consideration is given to social, economic and environmental constraints?

Bioeconomy strategies and sustainability

Developing regional and national bioeconomy strategies is an important step in developing Africa’s bioeconomy. South Africa is the only country in Africa that has implemented a comprehensive strategy. While new technologies and changing socio-economic patterns of production and consumption can be a force for good, they can also pose considerable risks.

It is therefore essential to keep developments in the bioeconomy within ecological limits, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the most important global expression of the sustainability imperative.

Early research indicates that most countries with a political bioeconomy strategy have neither identified any conflicting goals between achieving the SDGs and fostering the bioeconomy nor addressed them through regulatory frameworks.

It’s especially important to do so in a continent that in general has relatively abundant natural resources, and where governance can be relatively weak. It’s also important to introduce better regulatory safeguards for socio-ecological sustainability, while at the same time ensuring that economic growth and development are not stalled in the process.

Recommendations for driving the bioeconomy in Africa

Participants identified actions and recommendations for an agenda for the African bioeconomy that can support the SDGs. We summarise the key points below:

  • Create jobs through bio-based economic growth. Develop policies and regulatory frameworks that create demand for bio-based technologies and knowledge, as well as on certification, quality and environmental standards, public procurement efforts and tax incentives.
  • Develop national bioeconomy strategies. These are critical for guiding investment, government intervention, and policy agendas.
  • Drive innovation. There is a need to link innovation to market actors and translate promising technologies and expertise into societal benefits on a large scale. African countries often need support to build capacity in the public R&D sectors, including training in entrepreneurship and platforms for communication to enable academia to better interact with market actors. The European Commission already contributes tailor-made policy initiatives and sustainable joint research and investment projects Such as the EU Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking, a €3.7 billion partnership between the EU and the Bio-based Industries Consortium.
  • Link African farmers to markets and agro-value chains to gain benefit from bioeconomy developments. Diverse and resource-efficient agro-processing, agro-waste and biomass value chains are central to an African bioeconomy, and to enable African farmers and biomass producers to diversify their production and connect to local, regional and international markets. Countries should promote integrated agro-industrial parks and bio business incubating services, encompassing the whole of the value chain from the farm to the processing centre. Existing initiatives include the Ethiopian Investment Commissionwhich aims to set up 14 agro-industrial parks in the country by 2025. However, it is important not to underestimate the importance of local and small-scale everyday bioeconomy activity
  • Support African bio-based companies: a strong and engaged African private sector – in particular, small to medium enterprises (SMEs) – are crucial for translating the promises of the bioeconomy into usable tools for practitioners, not least for smallholder farmers. The problem is that in most African countries the private sector lacks the capacity and resources to move research and development efforts to market, often because there is limited collaboration between innovators within Africa’s SMEs and knowledge producers. Investment and support to enable SME’s to deploy modern bioeconomy technologies to the African market are therefore crucial.

One of the many recommendations for driving the bioeconomy in Africa is to link African farmers to markets and agro-value chains to gain benefit from bioeconomy developments. Photo: DJMcCoy / Getty Images.

  • Assess and address tensions and potential conflicts. Potential resource conflicts in the emerging African bioeconomy revolve around biomass production for food versus other products, socioeconomic challenges, and small-scale vs large-scale biomass production. African countries also need to effectively evaluate risks and benefits associated with new biosciences, biomass production regimes and value chains. Such assessments should also consider environmental and socioeconomic issues (e.g. potential winners and losers).
  • A vision for bioeconomy technologies in Africa. Educating and training African youth in the bioeconomy and bio-entrepreneurship is a vital long-term strategy for developing such a vision. Other steps include partnering with African and overseas companies to commercialise and scale up functional bioeconomy technologies, as well as using models and success stories of deployment. Such partnerships should, of course, be driven by African needs and livelihood realities, and be adjusted for local contexts.
  • Develop multiple south-south and south-north partnerships. Such partnerships are important for African countries to ensure access to the most up-to-date expertise and capital. Partnerships should draw strongly on Africa’s strengths, such as available land, a favourable climate, a large workforce and rapid economic growth. Collaboration would also provide opportunities for knowledge sharing, technology and innovation, and for revitalising and modernising African agriculture and biomass production.
  • Work with global development agencies. United Nations agencies such as UNESCO, WHO, FAO, UNIDO and others could offer opportunities to leverage global partnerships for knowledge sharing and advocacy.

Presenters’ institutional affiliations and their topics

  • Presentation of the largest bioeconomy platform in eastern Africa – Julius Ecuru, Icipe.
  • STRIVE Project. Interdisciplinary research project consisting of economic, social and natural scientists at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn on Sustainable Trade and Innovation Transfer in the Bioeconomy (STRIVE) – Jan Janosch Förster and Jan Börner, Center for Development Research – University of Bonn.
  • An integrated research and innovation program on food systems and water resources. The Bioeconomy in the Mediterranean, Fabio Fava, University Bologna.
  • Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute. The Emerging Opportunities and Challenges of Fostering Bioeconomic Development in Africa – Kassahun Tesfaye.
  • Applied Biotech Inc. USA/Nigeria. Opportunities and challenges for bioeconomic transformation in Africa: Harnessing Africa’s expansive Bioresource for the Bioeconomy – Nwadiuto (Diuto) Esiobu, Florida Atlantic University, CEO Applied Biotech Inc.
  • Blue bioeconomy – Blue Growth in the Mediterranean and the Southern Atlantic – Fabio Fava, University Bologna.
  • Opportunity for Bioeconomy in Africa, Need for Partnership – Peggy Oti-Boateng, UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa.

Written by

Ivar Virgin
Ivar Virgin

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

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