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Electronic Journal of Biotechnology
Universidad Católica de Valparaíso
ISSN: 0717-3458
Vol. 4, Num. 3, 2001

Electronic Journal of Biotechnology, Vol. 4, No. 3, December, 2001


Biotechnology Issues in Africa

Thomas G. Egwang

Director General and Scientific Director, Med Biotech Laboratories, Plot 3438, Muyenga Tank Hill By-pass, PO Box 9364, Kampala, Uganda Tel: 256-41-268251/266445 Fax: 256-41-268251 E-mail:

Code Number: ej01023

The word 'biotechnology' means different things to different people. In a narrow sense biotechnology means the use and exploitation of microorganisms to produce products of industrial or commercial interest. In this sense, one can argue that Africans have been adept at traditional biotechnology for food or beverage production. Beer brewing, cheese making, and production of sour milk are obvious examples. The exploitation of genetically engineered microorganisms, centred on the technology of genetic engineering or recombinant DNA, constitutes modern biotechnology. This definition is rather narrow. Biotechnology should therefore be seen as a pervasive new suite of technologies with current or potential applications in a large number of industries, including pharmaceuticals, chemicals, mining, forestry, fisheries, agriculture, and food processing (Arunde and Rose, 1998). These technologies include recombinant DNA, gene probes, DNA amplification, tissue culture, somatic embryogenesis, classical and traditional breeding, bioprocessing (fermentation and recovery), and biosensing.

Applications of biotechnology which will have the most impact on African lives are those in the fields of agriculture and medicine. Advances in cell and tissue culture, tissue regeneration, and transformation have now made it possible to produce, on demand, transgenic crops with improved quality. This means, for example cassava or barley with modified starch content, an all- or high amylose content starch being an important raw industrial material for biodegradable plastics; sorghum with increased lysine content; sweet potatoes and cassava resistant to viruses; high yield rice, etc. Food crops which are resistant to drought would pre-empt the type of famines we have already seen in certain parts of the continent.

The application of recombinant DNA work in medicine has resulted in several breakthroughs in recent years. In the area of vaccine development, Salmonella and adenovirus have been used to deliver recombinant vaccine antigens to selected sites in the human body. Malaria kills an estimated 1-2 million children a year in Africa alone. Although several vaccine candidates have been developed by recombinant DNA technology, very few have reached the stage of clinical trials because of production problems. The advent of naked DNA vaccines has been a major significant breakthrough in this regard since the DNA encoding the vaccine is simply injected into the subject. Malaria vaccine development using the naked DNA approach has shown promising results in trials using experimental animals.

There is an increasing problem of garbage in urban African centers. Environmental biotechnology is therefore an important field for Africans to undertake in order to provide solutions to waste management. There is need to identify indigenous microorganisms, which degrade garbage and plastics. In Uganda, the problem associated with the disposal of plastics has become a serious national concern. The discovery of a native Ugandan microorganism, which degrades polyethylene plastics, would be an environmental biotechnology breakthrough. These organisms could be tagged with molecular markers such that when they are released into the environment their fate can be monitored. The investment in equipment to monitor these microorganisms is minimal and should be affordable by any serious African environmental biotechnology department.

The genomes of organisms ranging from microbial organisms such as Haemophilus influenzae, malaria and other parasitic organisms, yeast, to plants such as Arabidopsis thaliana and man have been unravelled. Thousands of gene sequences continue to be deposited into the databases every day. Functional genomics is now an important aspect of genome research by which we try to attribute function to all these genes. Proteomics, on the other hand, is another aspect of genome research in which the expression of these genes in organisms and plants are being dissected. Since there is an exponential explosion in the volume of data generated every day, there is increasing need for the application of information technology to make biological and commercial sense of all the data. Bioinformatics is the use of information technology to identify potential vaccine or drug targets from the genome databases. These advances can only benefit Africans if African scientists adopt them to solve African problems.

The role of African scientists in biotechnology work has been varied and depends on the country. In the majority of cases, and in Uganda in particular, agricultural scientists have made important breakthroughs in developing crops such as coffee, beans, and maize with improved quality through tissue culture and micropropagation. However, there have been almost no African inroads in technologies involving genetic engineering. It is encouraging to note that, in recognition of this deficit, there is now a keen interest in Africa to transfer these technologies to Africa.

The major constraints in developing a strong biotechnology base in Africa have been lack of government commitment to invest in science and technology, the fact that biotechnology is an expensive undertaking and most African laboratories are in dire need of funds, lack of a critical mass of scientists trained in the requisite various technologies, and the fact that it is impossible to raise venture capital for biotechnology in Africa. African entrepreneurs would rather invest their dollars in traditional industries such as textiles, coffee processing, and tyre making than in biotechnology. These constraints need to be addressed if biotechnology in Africa will take root and provide Africans with improved and more abundant foods and better but affordable health products.

The challenge is for African scientists to try and overcome the current constraints in biotechnology in Africa and to actively engage in all aspects of biotechnology in agriculture, medicine, and the environment. The enthusiasm for embracing these technologies must, of course, be tempered by the understandable concern about the effect of biotechnology on biodiversity and the environment. For this reason, there must also be capacity building and training in biosafety risk assessment and risk management especially where transgenic plants are released. In this domain, competent African scientists need to work closely with policy makers in order not to stifle creativity with regulations, which might be too stringent. In conclusion, biotechnology holds great promise for Africa. It is up to Africans to overcome current obstacles and harness the great potential of biotechnology with diligence and prudence.  This should be the overriding challenge of the 21st century.


Arunde, A. and Rose, A. (1998). Finding the substance behind the smoke: Who is using biotechnology? Nature Biotechnology 16:596.

Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network

© 2001 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile

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