Editor’s note: Bioengineer and microbiologist Saron Berhane is an independent consultant and cofounder of Australian agtech startup BioScout.
The views expressed in this guest article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.
There is one sector that has the highest potential to support the industrialization and economic prosperity goals of African nations while eradicating poverty: Biomanufacturing.
Defined as a type of manufacturing that uses biology, engineering and information technology to produce commercially important products across food, health and industrial applications, it allows us to make use of cutting-edge synthetic biotechnology tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 and nature’s intrinsic diversity.
Perhaps more crucially, it will enable us to reconfigure manufacturing systems in a way that minimizes waste, pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while building resilient and equitable production systems.
While today’s petrochemical refineries are concentrated in a few locations, biomanufacturing will enable us to deploy manufacturing centers in targeted locations that make use of local renewable and sustainably sourced feedstocks and that produce materials, fuel, vaccines and other products that can be used locally, thus minimizing emissions related to transportation and production.
Moreover, it will enable the creation of new bio-based products across several industries such as bio-based inputs for agriculture; enzymes and chemicals for industry; biomaterials for textiles, construction and healthcare; biopackaging, bioenergy/fuel for transportation and electricity generation.
Manufacturing systems can be designed to prevent unchecked growth in emissions which would otherwise lead to downstream economic impacts for African nations such as reduced financing options and emissions-related export penalties. This could weigh on the continent’s long-term growth and wellbeing.
Startup innovation, local creativity and the principles of the circular economy are needed to realize this potential.
- The abundance of biomass, biodiversity and agriculture residues gives the continent a competitive advantage and the opportunity to leapfrog other continents by building the low carbon biomanufacturing sector from the ground up.
- To date, Africa’s manufacturing output is quite small. It contributes 3% to global manufacturing greenhouse gas emissions and 2% to global manufacturing value add. This is an advantage as Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) countries are not weighed down by legacy infrastructure that may limit their speed and agility to transition to more sustainable manufacturing systems.
- African governments are committed to industrializing their economies in order to meet the basic needs of growing populations while creating jobs and wealth. African leaders realize the opportunity that biomanufacturing presents to transition to more sustainable production systems. Several nations have already made commitments to improving continent-based vaccine manufacturing and many have launched biomanufacturing training initiatives to bridge the skills gap (e.g. Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa).
- Africa has the youngest population in the world, with nearly 800 million Africans aged under 25. Africa’s young, growing population needs opportunities to work and contribute to local and global communities. As The Economist observed in its 2011 cover story ‘Africa Rising’, “Having a lot of young adults is good for any country if its economy is thriving, but if jobs are in short supply it can lead to frustration and violence… Western governments should open up to trade rather than just dish out aid.”
- As the cost of manufacturing in China and across Asia has risen, several manufacturing companies are establishing factories in Africa to take advantage of lower labor costs and a larger workforce (particularly for labor-intensive industries). While this is good news for job creation and skills development in Africa, I assume that a lot of inefficient, risky and polluting manufacturing technology is being brought onto the continent. African nations and companies have an opportunity to leapfrog outdated, polluting production processes with biomanufacturing. This presents a ripe opportunity to embed sustainability, ethics and transparency into the supply chain from day one.
Several African nations have already leapfrogged the world with mobile money and fintech. Mobile money penetration has resulted in SSA having the highest rates for financial inclusion in the world. For example, in 2017, 21% of adults in SSA had a mobile money account compared with just 4% worldwide.
Policy makers on the continent have taken steps to realize a similar future for agritech and biomanufacturing. Hard infrastructure on the continent is imperfect but it is improving and will be accelerated by the creation of industry and jobs. I’m personally excited to build and support a future for Africa that is sustainable and equitable.
Read part one of this series below: