Resilience in the face of COVID-19 Pandemic

Our warmest wishes and Happy Holidays to you all. As we bid bye to 2020 – a year that visited unprecedented misery upon us all, our prayers are with all our friends, partners, their families and colleagues. May the New Year wrestle down the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic and gift us immeasurable blessings.

In spite of the tumultuous storm fuelled by the pandemic, ISAAA AfriCenter remained resilient and determined to support Africa’s agricultural growth by helping ease farmers’ access to agricultural biotechnology. The Center adjusted its operations from physical meetings to virtual engagements as the pandemic forced the world into a ‘new normal’. 

The Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops, 2019 (ISAAA Brief 55) released in November 2020 shows Africa has made remarkable progress in embracing crop biotechnology. The continent doubled the number of countries planting biotech crops from three in 2018 to six in 2019, leading the progress among the regions of the world in GM crop adoption.   

Ethiopia, Malawi and Nigeria become the latest countries to plant GM crops joining South Africa, Sudan and Eswatini. The six countries grew three biotech crops – maize, soybean and cotton – on approximately three million hectares by end of 2019. The seventh country, Kenya, granted approval for cultivation of Bt cotton and should soon join the league of adopter nations on the continent. Nigeria approved commercial planting of Pod Borer-Resistant (PBR) GM cowpea adding a new biotech crop to the global biotech basket.

AfriCenter’s policy outreach and support boosted Africa’s progress in biotech crop research, regulation, and acceptance as evident in Mozambique, Niger, Ghana, Rwanda and Zambia. Niger is the latest country to pass their Biosafety Law. Rwanda joined Kenya and Uganda in carrying out research into GM cassava. The country already initiated a confined field trial for GM cassava resistant to cassava brown streak disease in 2020.

Through AfriCenter’s intensified communication program, many farmers in Africa have exhibited increased awareness and appreciation of agricultural biotechnology. Farmer leaders in Kenya in particular, expressed renewed hope in resuming profitable cotton farming with the start of Bt cotton planting in 2020. “Bt cotton presents me with a golden opportunity to provide for my family and secure the future of my children,” said Francis Apailo, a cotton farmer in western Kenya. With more awareness about the technology, African farmers are expected to adopt biotech crops, which will positively impact their families and the continent at large.

Precision breeding tools – Genome editing  

The year 2020 saw AfriCenter position itself as a leading player in shaping the narrative about precision breeding tools such as genome editing in the continent. The Center successfully initiated formation of an African Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing, Kenya Chapter.  Stakeholders with an interest on genome editing including scientists, regulators, policy makers, media and industry players came together to activate the formation of the Coalition, thus actualising  a key resolution reached during the 2019 Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication (ABBC) symposium held in South Africa. 

Additionally, AfriCenter introduced Genome Editing 101 conversation series aimed at bolstering understanding and appreciation of the potential that precision breeding tools can offer. Ten webinars were co-hosted by Afri and SEAsia Centers reaching over 60,000 stakeholders in 90 countries globally. 

Animal Biotechnology – The Next Frontier

With a view to expanding our knowledge-sharing platform beyond crops, ISAAA AfriCenter was privileged to co-host the 4th International Animal Biotechnology Regulatory Perspectives conference, which ran as virtual series from September 2020. Exciting developments shared included: Food Safety regulations for genetically engineered animals, Genome Editing regulatory approaches for animals and status of environmental and contained use regulations of genetically engineered animals. At ISAAA, we believe starting these conversations with the global community at this early stage when commercial approvals are starting is important to encourage constructive dialogue in the sector. During the series, we amplified conversations around the contribution of animal biotechnology in addressing the challenge of food security especially in the developing world.

Policy oils the engine of agri-development

We worked closely with policy and decision makers to ensure they are well-versed with biotech and biosafety advancements both locally and globally through  regular updates to  senior government officials. The updates  were very instrumental in encouraging their participation through comments  on environmental release applications such as  for disease-resistant GM cassava developed under the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) Plus collaborative project in Kenya. Further, the engagements led to the development of a brief highlighting policy overlaps in Kenya that need to be addressed for smooth implementation of biosafety decisions by the National Biosafety authority. Our partnership with Danforth Center on this project was strengthened further when we ventured into  virtual stakeholder  engagements leading to the first successful virtual public participation on a GM crop in the region. Other projects such as Golden Rice in Philippines reached out for experience-sharing. 

Knowledge sharing on modern biotechnologies remains one of the key areas of focus at AfriCenter. We shared knowledge to inform policy and choice around biotech. Five publications and close to 20 videos were developed and strategically disseminated. Nine articles were published in Crop Biotech Update, a weekly e-newsletter on the latest agri-biotech and biosafety news from Africa and beyond. Thirteen issues of the DrumBeat, a monthly newsletter that covers Africa’s biosciences trends, were dispatched to over 3,800 subscribers majority of whom are from Africa. 

The media forms an integral part in shaping public perceptions that affect adoption of biotech crops and emerging gene technologies. It sensitizes and educates the public on these crops and technologies hence stimulating dialogue on their effective utilization. Subsequently, we continued to closely engage the media to ensure increased accurate reporting of agri-biotechnology. Close to two-hundred journalists and editors were sensitized through our continuous media engagement with over 80 million media impressions recorded in 2020 alone.

“I am because we are”

AfriCenter also expanded its rich pool of partners in the year. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Imperial College London are our new partners. With UNESCO, we conducted a knowledge and information needs assessment on COVID-19 in Africa. The study will inform the nature of COVID-19 interventions and types of pandemic-related media stories to be commissioned. With Imperial College London and a multidisciplinary team of partners we kick-started the first-ever government-funded research project on Synthetic Biology in Kenya. The project will employ synthetic biology innovations in addressing intractable challenges in food security and healthcare by developing low-cost diagnostic kits and biosensors for improving disease surveilance. Synthetic biology has been taunted as one of the new ST&I horizons for the 4th industrial revolution. 

Lastly, AfriCenter started the first short course on biosciences for early career and to equip the vibrant upcoming young African professionals on the global discussions shaping biosafety policies at the national level. Their involvement in these international developments is going to be key in positioning Africa as a leader in bio-innovations than a follower. This will contribute to realisation of the Africa Union Agenda 2063 that recognizes the critical role of science, technology and innovation, as universal enablers for addressing poverty and inequalities; diseases; climate change impact; food and nutrition security, digitization, health; disease prevention and environmental conservation. 

As we look into 2021, we are optimistic the continent will sustain the momentum for bioscience growth and counting on your continued goodwill and support. Looking forward to connecting with you again at the 4th Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication (ABBC2021) symposium in October 2021! For enquiries on how to participate, drop an email to: 

Happy Holidays and stay safe!
Margaret Karembu, PhD, MBS
Director, ISAAA AfriCenter