School of Life Sciences

Scenes from the BIO Africa Convention held in Durban.

BIO Africa Convention

The fifth annual BIO Africa Convention themed Africa Resilient: Life Sciences Innovation for Achieving Health and Food Security, held from 27 to 31 August brought together scientists, entrepreneurs, business leaders and policy-makers.

The convention, which is Africa’s biggest biotechnology event is hosted by Africa Bio in partnership with the Department of Science and Innovation, with the national Technology Innovation Agency as another funding partner. It was launched more than six years ago in partnership with the international Biotechnology Innovation Organisation (BIO). Other partners include the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), Emory University and the Innovation Hub (Gauteng).

The founding theme, which continues to be the guiding light of this movement, is leveraging biotechnology and life sciences to mobilise African innovation to achieve health and food security. The 2022 Convention was held at Durban’s ICC, the South African Sugar Association at Mount Edgecombe and UKZN’s Howard College campus in partnership with UKZN, Aspen, Amgen and other partners.

BIO International’s CEO Dr Michelle McMurry-Heath emphasised the importance of collaboration and the combination of resources and expertise to improve people’s lives, as ‘that’s what science is all about.’

She said that health, environmental and agricultural insecurities are growing and ‘COVID really highlighted what too many of us already knew – the world needs new answers to its problems.

‘The threat of infectious diseases is increasing and chronic diseases that continue to plague us are often overlooked. Food insecurity is leading to greater hunger and climate change is a leading cause. Many of these life- and culture-threatening crises are human made. We thus need a people-driven solution, and that is biotechnology.’

McMurry-Heath encouraged diverse and inclusive partnerships to develop ideas; efficient regulatory systems and strong intellectual property (IP) laws as well as advocacy for science as ‘investment in science pays off.’

President of AfricaBio Dr Nhlanhla Msomi commented that the number of students and startups at the convention augurs well for the future. ‘Startups and students are the agents that will give meaning to the goals that we have set ourselves of indigenous or local innovation to support development.’

Msomi and Dr Giorgio Roscigno, co-founder of the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) which developed the Gene Expert, announced the Durban Declaration which will focus on African product partnership development. It is expected to be launched later this year in partnership with the Africa CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) and UKZN, among a host of other partners on the continent.

Africa CDC Director Dr Ahmed Ouma said, ‘When Africa comes together, a lot of good things happen.’ He reflected on lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic and the many disease threats and health emergencies responded to on the African continent. ‘When a crisis is big, like the pandemic, Africa is on its own… When a crisis is smaller, more local and not a global priority, Africa still is on its own.’

He said that he hoped that discussions at the convention aligned with Africa’s vision as a continent. ‘One key African vision is Agenda 2063 – the Africa we want. It is a blueprint for this continent’s plan of transforming Africa into a global powerhouse. We can, because the ingredients are there.’

Addressing the Convention virtually from Indonesia, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Dr Blade Nzimande underscored the importance of the bio-economy. ‘Across the world, the concept of a bio-economy is being embraced as a sustainable model that brings together all commercial activity surrounding the use of renewable biological resources such as crops, forests, animals and micro-organisms, agricultural waste and residual materials. Women are central in the management of these resources.

‘This is being done with a view to addressing challenges related to food security, health, biodiversity and environmental protection, energy and industrial processes. It is therefore no exaggeration to state that the very survival of humanity depends on how we manage the earth’s resources.’

Former United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka announced the recipients of the Dr Konji Sebati Fellowships. She said that the Fellowships ensure that the late diplomat and medical doctor lives on through the recipients of the awards which celebrate health innovation female leaders of tomorrow.

Speaking at a gala dinner, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Mr Buti Manamela said African governments should make well thought-out and bold decisions which include the development of evidence-based bio-economic policies. ‘Bio-economic policies must be informed by credible scientific research – not the self-serving agenda of the domestic or foreign elite. Consistent with this understanding, African governments will also have to make deliberate and targeted investments in research and innovation with an emphasis on the development of young people and women scientists and researchers.’

One of the highlights of the convention was the signing of an MOU between the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) and the University of Venda.

The Convention included a packed menu of tracks including Healthcare innovation in the age of Pandemics; Strategic Capital Mobilisation and Market Access; Food Security (AgriBio); IK-Based Bio-Innovations; Entrepreneurship and Start-Ups; Cannabis Industrialisation and Building Social Capital as well as a bio entrepreneurship boot camp for startups.

Director of UKZN InQubate Ms Suvina Singh was a member of a panel on strategic support mechanisms. She said that the main drivers to create enabling environments to support entrepreneurship include an IP policy, infrastructure, and champions/ambassadors. She underscored the need to approach technology transfer offices (in university settings) early to ward off any potential issues.

Dean of Research in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Professor Neil Koorbanally facilitated a session entitled Win-Win North-South Collaborations through a North former Start Up: New England Biolabs: How strong core values fueled success from Start-up to multinational.

Visit the BIO Africa YouTube channel to view the plenary sessions and tracks.

Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer

Photographs: Albert Hirasen