‘To think outside the lab’ sounds like one seriously unscientific thing to tell to a scientist who is holed therein, incessantly tinkering with reagents and trying to reach their eureka moment, until what time their focus will not waver.

Only in this case there is a dearth of the reagents to form the enzymes they badly need. So what’s left, in that case, is to procure the enzymes from abroad. But their order takes forever to be delivered and is extremely expensive, so what to do?

In the April 2023 inaugural Enzyme Manufacturing Masterclass (EMM2023) hosted by AfriBIOHub at Kenyatta University, the Kenya and Ethiopia participants were told exactly that: to think outside the box- nah, lab, in the face of a deficiency of crucial resources.

The Africa Biosciences Hub (AfriBIOHub) is a capacity development program within the Striga Smart Sorghum for Africa (SSSfA) project, aiming to support research, innovation, and bio-entrepreneurship in the field of Genome Editing (GEd).

In a thorough five-day exercise, they were taught how to navigate the challenge of a dearth of reagents, high cost of enzymes and inability to commercialise their work.

Satisfied that it delivered, Dr Jenny Molloy Executive Director, Beneficial Bio/Trainer, SSSfa, called her students “very qualified, highly enthusiastic” at the end of the course.

The participants learnt to use locally available materials should what they need be unavailable, and how to commercially benefit from their painstaking efforts in the lab.

“As we left the course equipped with a newfound understanding of how to turn scientific expertise into commercial success, we embarked on a path where science and entrepreneurship converged,” says Maurine Mutua, a participant from the KEMRI Graduate School.

Local manufacturing creates the potential for entrepreneurial innovations and job creation for young scientists, who were the target in the training.

The course, hosted by Beneficial Bio Ltd (UK) in collaboration with ISAAA AfriCenter and esteemed partners, needed 20 students. It was, however, oversubscribed- threefold, showing the organisers the need there was for more of such training.

In a situation where resources are limited, the participants were to use locally available resources, including standard laboratory equipment, to make their enzymes at a fraction of the cost they would have incurred in importing, and faster.

The high cost of equipment, reagents and limited training of personnel has been noted as the three biggest impediments to molecular biology research in Africa. The Kenyatta University molecular biology lab, for example, spends at least USD 5,000 annually for routine work on Taq polymerase – a basic enzyme used in most experiments.

To help alleviate this problem, AfriBIOHub has been on the forefront in building the capacity for local scientists in bio-manufacturing of essential molecular biology reagents.

And in the future, the AfriBIOHub will also host a Biodesign Makerspace to locally fabricate simple molecular biology equipment such as gel imagers and gel electrophoresis tanks thus cutting on the prohibitive cost of purchasing them.

In the training, they networked, creating helpful connections that could bolster the success of their individual projects.

ISAAA AfriCentre director Margaret Karembu says that it is imperative that the scientists learn how they can commercialise their projects even before they can complete them, and such masterclasses will translate excellence in the lab to useful solutions for society, and viable business ideas for scientists.

The AfriBIOHubs are being established in universities because there are the young people working on these exciting science projects, there is the expertise, and there are the labs that can be used to create products that will be impactful to society, she says.

Students and researchers, through such interactions, are then improving their hands-on skills. Synthetic labs are also now coming up without much difficulty, giving scientists an easier time to experiment and develop products.

“Synthetic biology laboratories are now easier to form with the development of synthetic biology and technology to provide the infrastructure in molecular biology labs even in the standard laboratory,” says Dr Susan Musembi, a scientist at Kenyatta University.

The situation is changing for the better, thanks to more and more scientists taking up training in the emerging biotechnologies focused on precision breeding, Mary Mwangi, a scientist at Kenyatta University says.

Participants of this marathon masterclass came with high expectations and by their accounts, they were not disappointed.

Adede Hawi Nyodero, a scientist at Africa Genomics Centre, says she was eager to learn how to overcome the challenge of procuring necessary reagents, or enzymes, and to do so cost-effectively, things she could replicate in her own space.

Joshua Magu, a post-graduate student who participated in the training, decried a hitch in procuring the enzymes, and the possibility of other scientists running away with one’s idea due to the delay associated with inability to swiftly get necessary materials. Procuring enzymes could take in excess of half a year, notes Dr Peris Ambala, a lecturer at Kenyatta University.

In the Masterclass, Dr Molloy says, participants were taught “everything from how to do a PCR, to how to clone DNA, to express proteins in bacteria and how to use those proteins in their own research”.

The masterclass, by teaching the participants how to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and commercial success, therefore opened doors to a sustainable future where biotechnology can thrive, benefitting many outside the confines of the lab.

Targeted to overcome the longstanding challenges researchers and bio-entrepreneurs face in low and medium-income countries—namely, the scarcity and cost of imported reagents and equipment, the Enzyme Manufacturing Masterclass was a success.

And armed with open-source protocols and skills acquired during the masterclass, the participants now possess the tools to produce enzymes locally, without the need to wait on affluent countries.

This newfound capability instils hope, paving the way for greater self-sufficiency and independence, spurring innovation and advancement within their own communities.

AfriBIOHub is funded by USAID through the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future global hunger and food security initiative, with ISAAA AfriCenter the implementing partner with Kenyatta University as the co-implementing institution.

Two of the participants (now Founders) were provided a 6-months’ entrepreneurship training and mentorship opportunity by the Iowa State University Startup Factory where they are currently putting into practice what they learnt at the AfriBIOHub’s inaugural Enzyme Manufacturing Masterclass.