Genome editing stakeholders in Africa have called for africanization of genome editing, an approach which they say will uniquely address agricultural challenges on the continent. They made the appeal during a genome editing communication training held from 17th – 18th March 2022 in a hybrid format with in-person attendance in three African countries – Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria.
The stakeholders – comprising scientists, communicators and regulators – proposed for development of genome editing platforms that will prioritize improvement of Africa’s strategically important crops.
Speaking during the workshop, Prof. Firew Mekbib of Ethiopia’s Haramaya University underscored the need for the continent to champion for adoption of genome editing technology as one of the options in addressing intractable challenges in agriculture. “Africa has more than a hundred traditional crops – otherwise known as ‘orphan crops’- that are currently not on the priority list for improvement yet they are susceptible to effects of climate change,” said Prof. Mekbib.
As one way of africanizing genome editing research and narrative, Prof Mekbib proposed for mainstreaming of the technology in academia, research and policy cycles in the region. “We need advocacy for genome editing at local and regional levels,” he remarked.
Echoing Prof. Mekbib, Ebonyi State University Vice Chancellor Prof. Prof Chigozie Ogbu said genome editing will improve agricultural activities and solve emerging challenges due to climate change. Prof. Ogbu assured his university’s support for this novel innovation.
It emerged that Africa’s genome editing regulatory landscape has started shaping up with Nigeria and Kenya taking lead by publishing guidelines on the technology. Director General of the Dr. Rufus Ebegba, National Biosafety Management Authority (NBMA) applauded the two countries for taking a bold step in approving the guidelines. He encouraged other African countries to follow suit.
Dr. Ebegba challenged the continent to strengthen capacity and establish legislation that will favour the use and implementation of genome editing. “To boost the use of genome editing in crop improvement, there is need to develop science-based guidelines which will treat genome edited varieties as similar to those generated through conventional breeding, particularly where no foreign gene is in the final product,” he advised.
He said efforts should be made to provide the necessary facilities needed for a conducive research environment and fund scientists who are working on this new gene technology. As Nigeria and Kenya start using genome editing guidelines, six other countries – Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Eswatini, Ghana, Sudan and Zimbabwe – are considering developing similar guidelines.
The workshop was organized under the auspices of the African Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing, a platform that fosters constructive dialogue and facilitates efficiency in research, development and uptake of genome editing applications on the continent. The Coalition brings together all stakeholders and partners to frame genome editing narrative so that the technology does not become polarized.
“It is time we move away from debates to dialogue in order to move faster and deliver research outputs to our communities,” remarked Dr. Margaret Karembu, the Director of ISAAA AfriCenter and Chairperson African Coalition for Communicating about Genome Editing.
Among the areas of training in the workshop included key message developing on genome editing, information trends on this emerging breeding technology, and online fact-checking and verification among other topics.
A hundred and ten (110) scientists, communicators and regulators from institutions working on genome editing projects in Africa attended the training.