By Prof. Aggrey Ambali
Modern science, technologies and innovations (STIs) continue to gain traction and play a key role in our contemporary world. Their applications now traverse across practically all the key sectors of human sustenance economic development and wellbeing – from agriculture and food production/security to industrial and manufacturing, as well as health and medicine sectors. While initiatives to mainstream these innovative technologies, especially in agriculture have gradually continued to bear fruit, there is still need for more effort and support to ensure a comprehensive adoption of innovative modern sciences such as biotechnology; and in particular the nascent genome editing. Acknowledged as a technology that is evolutionary, genome editing continues to shatter barriers due to its precision and fast outcomes compared to other tools, especially in improving agricultural productivity. It is with this background that during the recently concluded fourth edition of the Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication (ABBC2021) Symposium, held from September 20 -24, 2021, key focus was placed on genome editing. A clarion call by key stakeholders during the just concluded ABBC2021 Symposium was the need to position Africa as a leader in genome editing by consolidating research efforts. Needs assessment and stakeholder consultation will be key in identifying Africa context-specific priority areas of application. Moreso, effective communication is crucial in averting mixed perceptions, as what has largely been ascribed to preceding tools like genetic modification.
Notably, were views from the Head of Science, Technology and Innovation Hub (NSTIH) at the Africa Union Development Agency- at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AUDA-NEPAD), Prof Aggrey Ambali, who lauded the continent’s great strides in adoption of biotech crops. Currently, there are seven countries -Eswatini, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Sudan and South Africa-, in which five biotech crops – cassava, cotton, cowpea, maize and soybean – have already received biosafety approval. Prof Ambali noted AUDA-NEPAD recognizes the important role that STIs play in Africa’s socio-economic progression as enshrined in the Africa Union’s AU Agenda 2063, which identifies STIs as multi-functional tools and enablers for achieving the continental development goals. The AU schema underscores that Africa’s sustained growth, competitiveness and economic transformation necessitates continued investment in new technologies and innovation in agriculture, health, clean energy, and education among other sectors. One such technology, which Prof Ambali was particularly upbeat about, is genome editing. “Genome editing is a welcome addition to the breeder’s toolbox. It improves the speed, precision and time of delivering improved varieties and breeds to farmers. However, its adoption will heavily rely on implementation of policies that foster an enabling environment for research and development,” asserted Prof Ambali.
Achieving this feat, requires inputs some of which AUDA has already put in place, such as formulation of policies that create a continental strategic focus in harnessing biotechnology for socio-economic development, and whose key outcome is the “Freedom to Innovate” publication of 2007. Another such effort is the Science Technology & Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2014-2024), with formation of the Africa High Level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) for priority setting; one of whose priorities is the Gene Drives for Malaria Control and Elimination Strategy of 2018. AUDA also exercises leadership in supporting AU member states in international negotiations at the Convention on Biological Diversity Conference and Meeting of the Parties to the Biosafety Protocol (COP-MOP). Further to these, through the Africa Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) AUDA has made good progress in strengthening biosafety capacity in the region to ensure safe and responsible use of these modern innovations. Moreover, in a move aimed at reinforcing the position of the genome editing agenda, the Africa Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing, was launched. It is a concept that was mooted and recommended during the ABBC2019 Symposium held in South Africa.
Genome editing is an incipient technology in the field of research and unlike genetic modification (GM), genome editing does not involve transgenes. The resultant product consequently contains no transgenes or promoter genes introduced in them. It is a technology that has continued to undergo rapid evolution across the continent in the recent years and therefore it is a promising technological innovation. Researchers point out that genome editing, which incorporates tools such as the now popular CRISPR, portends many benefits in different fields, and that CRISPR projects are continually increasing in the recent years. “Africa is set for an early take off in genome editing. Several experts are already using this emerging technology to address various challenges. I therefore take note of the Africa Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing,” Prof Ambali indicated. He underscored his support for this novel technology through the conviction that the coalition will address the significant role of building the skills and confidence of African researchers. He further urged them to get out of their comfort zones and help the society to appreciate the value of STIs through effective communication. AUDA-NEPAD, he averred, looks forward to working with the coalition and the agreed way forward as put forth by the pertinent stakeholders.