By Dr. Margaret Karembu, MBS
ISAAA AfriCenter Director and Co- Convener ABBC 2021
The fourth edition of the Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication (ABBC2021) Symposium, held from 20th-24 September 2021, concluded with a raft of resolutions aimed at accelerating development and adoption of crop biotechnology on the continent. Capping off the Symposium was the launch of the African Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing, a platform that will foster open and transparent dialogue on genome editing in the region.
Held in a hybrid format, with both in-person and virtual participation, ABBC 2021 was themed ‘Accelerating Africa’s Biotech Tipping Point: Taking Stock and Celebrating the Gains’. It provided an opportunity for African countries to concretize progress made in crop biotechnology, define the next steps, document successes and, widely share lessons learned for synergy and inspiration. The event brought together scientists and scholars, law makers and policy advisors, regulators, communicators, media practitioners, industry players and farmers from Africa and around the world.
An overriding recommendation from the Symposium was on the need to cultivate a more favourable environment for crop biotech research and products in Africa, with a call for increased political will and budgetary support for the technology. Prof. Aggrey Ambali, Head of Science, Technology and Innovation Hub at African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), encouraged collaborations to spur creation of the enabling environment. Prof. Ambali said the African Union has taken lead in creation of an enabling environment for biotechnology in the region. “To achieve this milestone, AUDA has formulated several policies that have forged the continental strategic focus in harnessing biotechnology for socio-economic development,” he revealed.
The participants noted there is improving policy environment and political will in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya and Malawi, and this has culminated into commercialization of biotech crops in these countries.
Stronger scientific collaboration
A resounding message on the first day of the Symposium was a clarion call for stronger scientific collaboration and more robust public-private partnerships in order to realize optimum success in the crop biotech sector in Africa. It was highlighted that many organizations and countries are still stuck in individualistic approaches causing duplications and denying stakeholders the efficiency that comes with sharing available resources. “We need to expand our partnerships and explore new ventures by involving other partners such as the private sector,” said Vitumbiko Chinoko, Project Manager, the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa.
Restrictive biosafety framework was cited as one of the challenges bedevilling progress of biotech crop development and adoption on the continent. The participants expressed concerns that biosafety regulations in most African countries are prohibitive and largely serve to block African farmers from accessing the technology that they seriously need. In addition, overlaps in regulatory mandates make biotech and biosafety systems unpredictable causing confusion and delays in decision-making around this sector.
Need for biosafety coordination
To address this challenge, it was deemed critical to for regulators to restrict themselves to scientific risk assessments that focus on the safety and relevance of the product rather than the process. On the aspect of overlap in regulatory mandates, it was unanimously agreed that a biosafety coordination mechanism that draws clear boundaries for each institution or provides for efficient consensus building for decision making should be established in earnest.
The Symposium also made an overarching recommendation to fully incorporate local private sector the realm of crop biotech development in Africa. It was felt that the private sector comprises equally important players in advancement and realization of crop biotech agenda.
It emerged that for Africa to optimize the benefits biotech crops, all stakeholders must play their rightful role. For this to happen strategic public awareness and sensitization on biotech should be in place. “This technology requires massive support in knowledge transfer and capacity building especially in developing countries,” remarked ISAAA Global Coordinator Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan.
Positioning Africa for genome editing adoption
As the continent continues to expand adoption of genetically modified crops, scientists in the region have taken pole position in advancing a new breeding tools such as genome editing. The technology holds great promise in transforming agriculture and healthcare sectors in Africa. However, the continent’s chance to benefit from these technologies lies heavily on its ability to efficiently regulate and communicate their potential. “African leaders, senior officials, policy makers and other stakeholders must be provided with evidence-based policy choices that will enable them make informed decisions in harnessing emerging technologies for socio-economic development on the continent,” said Dr. Rufus Ebegba, Chair of the Africa Biosafety Regulators Forum and Director-General of Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency.
Effective communication provides the basis for building trust around any new technology. Therefore, an all-inclusive communication approach on genome editing in the region is fundamental. That is why the launch of the African Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing was the key highlight of ABBC 2021. The Coalition will provide a platform to foster open and transparent dialogue on genome editing in the region. The launch was presided over by Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Industrialization, Trade and Enterprise Development Hon. Betty Maina.
Hon. Maina joined a host of bioscience stakeholders in welcoming the Coalition exuding confidence that this initiative will be key in shaping the narrative and public perceptions on emerging gene technologies in Africa. “As ABBC 2021 takes cue to launch the African Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing, I challenge African scientists to get out of their comfort zone and strive to ensure effective communication in non-technical languages to inform policy decisions and consumer choices,” she appealed.
AUDA-NEPAD pledged to support the Coalition. “The launch of an Africa Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing could not have come at a better time than now. AUDA-NEPAD looks forward to working with the Coalition,” said Prof. Ambali.
The Coalition will adopt a transdisciplinary approach to communication and public engagement. This will be done by enhancing soft skills for experts applying genome editing in Agriculture, Health and Environment to interact with those from Social Sciences researchers in the academia, policy leaders, private sector and the media in Africa thus encourage dialogue than endless debates.
For more information about ABBC2021, contact Dr. Margaret Karembu at firstname.lastname@example.org.