East Africa: Ngabirano - Bioeconomy Not the Silver Bullet to Bumper Harvests

interview

Gertrude Ngabirano, the executive secretary of the East African Science and Technology Commission, spoke to Njiraini Muchira on bio-based products.

What is bioeconomy and how can it contribute to the development of East Africa?

Bioeconomy is the sustainable production and exploitation of biological based resources, and knowledge. It is an economy which puts innovation in bio-based products, processes and business models at the centre and includes adding value to primary produce, optimising biomass use, and recycling biowaste.

A bioeconomy has the potential of increasing innovation, creating new value chains, creating and sustaining local and regional trade, increasing competitiveness for countries in the region to connect to global markets and attract international investments. It also plays a role in mitigating environmental degradation and coping with climate change.

Why is it important that countries in the region develop bioeconomy strategies?

Regional (and national) strategies are expected to lead to development of novel industries generating bio-based services, products and innovations that will translate into increased and more diverse value added agricultural production, new value chains, new start-ups and an innovation-driven growth of existing companies.

Which sectors are ideal for bioeconomy?

The eastern Africa bioeconomy strategy builds on existing sectoral priorities in sectors such as energy, agriculture and health.

What challenges do countries in the region face in the development of bioeconomies?

While the transition towards modern bioeconomies often is associated with increased sustainability, there is also a controversy on whether such a shift will lead to a better, more sustainable future. It is clear that a bioeconomy is not a silver bullet solution to food security, increased agricultural productivity and improved health, and cannot be considered as something self-evidently sustainable.

How tangible is the idea of a bioeconomy in a region where post-harvest losses are massive and value addition is near non-existent?

Continued improvement in sustainable agricultural productivity, combined with viable agribusiness adds value to farmers' production and improves their access to markets, and can drive broader bio-based economic growth and improve food security in the region.

Very little bioprocessing is done at the East African Community level, meaning that most small-scale farmers are not connected to value chains and growing markets. Agro-processing and value addition at the local level is thus essential not only for increasing productivity but also the profitability of smallholder farming, eventually transforming many of these into commercial farming ventures.

How can the region harness bioeconomy when research and development remains underfunded and experts are forced to depend on donor resources?

To successfully bring research and development products or innovation of new bioproducts to the market, mechanisms to share risks and new funding partnerships are necessary. We need wean ourselves off the sole dependence on government and/or donor agencies for research and development funds.

What role can the private sector play in advancing the idea of bioeconomy?

The private sector in East Africa is crucial in the advancing the bioeconomy and is the key to exploit market opportunities. However, it is still weak, particularly in the area of bio-based enterprise development and, therefore, unable primarily to drive the innovation needed for bioeconomy development on its own.

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