Local Scientists Snub The West In Biotech War
"Need For Biotechnology In Africa Is Very Clear"
Africa News Service
By Catherine Mgendi
October 21, 1999
Nairobi - Kenyan scientists want the country to adopt biotechnology
and fight off efforts by the West to keep the region from "the biotechnology
benefits bracket." Prof. Norah Olembo, the Director of the Kenya Industrial
Property Office, told a recent meeting that discussions held in Japan
in the early 1980s, resolved that Africa did not need biotechnology. However,
despite the rhetoric that biotech advances are bad for the region, she
says 75 per cent of the patent applications to her office were for biotechnologies
The Director of Kari, Dr. Cyrus Ndiritu told of a "dubious" communication
he had received from the international environmental lobby group, Greenpeace,
in the early 1990s, demanding to know Kari's position and activities on
transgenic, or genetically altered, crops. The Director of Kari, Dr. Ndiritu
said the West had no authority to determine what Africa should or shouldn't
do when they did not know what hunger and starvation were.
A meeting held recently at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute
(KARI) had all the hall marks of a scientific community that was ready
to confront the anti- biotechnology crusaders.
The scientists have said the anti-application crusade, is nothing more
than a campaign by powerful Western lobbies to have Africa side-lined
from benefiting from the biotechnology revolution, Dr. Nderitu told the
meeting. At yet another ongoing meeting in Nairobi the executive director
of African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) Dr John Mugabe said the
debate on biotechnology and its impacts on Africa was full of fallacies
and misplaced reality.
"Africa is already in the biotechnology revolution. We should not be
debating whether or not the continent should go for the technology but
what specific policies and institutions are required to enable Africans
to maximise benefits and minimise risks associated with genetic engineering,"
They say the on-going debate on the potential hazards of genetically
modified crops is aimed at confusing and scaring Africans away from developing
their own technologies and capacities "Biotechnology is not a dilemma
in Africa," Dr. John Wafula, the head of biotechnology research at the
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) stated earlier this month.
"The need for biotechnology in Africa is very clear and should not be
confused with the marketing and food surplus-driven forces of the Western
Addressing a meeting organised at the Kari headquarters to unravel the
controversy surrounding biotechnology, Dr. Wafula dismissed the notion
that Africa's food deficits could be solved by redistribution of food
mountains in developed countries. He said: "The notion that food deficits
in developing countries can be offset by redistribution of internationally
abundant food stocks is more theoretical than practical, and undermines
the need for Africa to increase food production.
The scientist argues that the biotechnology debate should not be centred
on whether or not Africa needs biotechnology, but rather on how to promote
and support its application to improve agricultural production and productivity.
Kenyan scientists have in the recent past, raised alarm on covert moves
by developed countries, particularly in Europe, to have Africa relegated
to the sidelines of biotechnology development.
According to Prof. Norah Olembo, the Director of the Kenya Industrial
Properties Office, who told the Kari meeting of similar discussions held
in Japan in the early 1980s, which resolved that Africa did not need biotechnology.
"This has been an ongoing onslaught to deter us from biotechnology and
make us a market for their genetically engineered products," Prof. Olembo
Dr. Florence Wambugu of Egerton University has previously cautioned
that if the continent was not careful, it would miss out on the benefits
of this millennium technology just as was bypassed by the green revolution,
and forever be relegated to oblivion. Dr. Wambugu says Western lobby groups
are trying to make Africa believe that it would be the target of malicious
introduction of biotechnologies because it lacked the capacity to tell
good from evil.
Dr. Wafula said while the US-Europe debate was driven by competition
for markets and profit maximization motives, biotechnology in Africa hinges
on averting mass starvation and alleviating rampant poverty. "Biotechnology
development and application must be taken within the context for which
Africa is craving - food production and survival."
Dr. Wafula said with a population expected to triple over the next 25
years and an agricultural sector that has maintained a downward trend,
Africa would have to seek refuge from biotechnology to fast- forward the
production of large amounts of food in order to meet the needs of its
peoples. He said as a result of maintaining a low profile in food production,
Africa has the lowest per capita food availability in the world.
African farmers, he said, were besieged by high costs of farm inputs
and high crop and animal losses due to diseases and pests, providing the
rationale for the use of biological technologies, including genetic manipulation,
to address these problems.
"The use of high-yielding, disease-resistant and pest-resistant crops
would have a direct bearing on improved food security, poverty alleviation
and environmental conservation in Africa," Dr. Wafula said.
He said the Government must identify the key national biotechnology
priorities in order to ensure that the only research and development activities
in biotechnology were undertaken with the limited available national resources.
He recommended that the Government also put in place policies and legislation
to govern safe and judious application and transfer of biotechnologies,
thereby minimising their perceived risks.
Dr. Wafula however cautioned that any biosafety regulations adopted should
be accommodative and promotional, rather than restrictive, of biotechnology
development, transfer and acquisition. The meeting resolved that awareness
and education of the public and policy makers would enhance the continent's
position and use of biotechnology.
Most African countries lack the necessary expertise and information
to engage in the formulation and implementation of long- term biotechnology
policies and laws. At the moment they are merely reacting to political
and ethical issues being raised by anti- biotechnology lobbies around
The course will contribute tot he creation of a critical mass of African
expertise in biotechnology policy analysis. It may also enlarge the region's
ability to participate effectively in the international negotiations on
the Protocol on Biosafety.
DR Mugabe encouraged African delegation to the Biosafety Protocol negotiations
to argue for provisions that will strengthen their capabilities in biotechnology.
He said: "Africa has comparative advantages in biotechnology. These include
its enormous genetic diversity and prior scientific knowledge in agriculture.
Biotechnology offers new opportunities to transform rural agriculture
without undermining local ecologies and socio-economic landscapes".
Governments must now move aggressively to lay down technology policies
that enlarge their comparatively advantages and competitiveness in the
technology, he said.
ACTS has mobilised international expertise in biotechnology policy and
intellectual property protection to five lectures and lead discussions
during the course. The international experts include DR Carlienne Brenner,
former senior policy analyst in the OECD's agriculture biotechnology programme
and Pro Norman Clark Director of the Graduate School of Environmental
studies at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland. Others include DR
Florence Wambugu, a leading African scientist in genetic engineering,
DR Phillippe Cullet an intellectual property protection lawyer in Geneva,
Switzerland, and Mr. Denis Rangi, Regional Director of the Commonwealth
Agricultural Bureau International (CABI) - Africa.