The Covid-19 pandemic has had devastating impact on the economy of African countries, many of which registered negative economic growth rates for the first time in many decades, according to the African Economic Outlook 2021.
The silver lining of the pandemic is that it has opened opportunities to envisage a new future based on green and sustainable growth as countries emerge from the crisis. Countries are rethinking how to make their economies resilient to external shocks like the pandemic, and other concerns like locust invasions and climate change.
We believe that developing a sustainable bioeconomy pathway, which involves the use of scientific knowledge to add social and economic value to biological resources, would be a good strategy for the continent, and is key to achieving the goals envisioned in the African Union’s Green Recovery Action Plan.
The rich biological resource base, a large proportion of arable land compared to other regions of the world, and a highly talented youthful workforce in sub-Saharan Africa gives the region a competitive advantage in developing a sustainable bioeconomy.
Nearly 90 percent of human medicines used in the region are imported and rely on stable global supply chains to deliver products at the right time. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that global supply chains can be fragile in the face of a health crisis. Therefore, there is a need for the region to have the capability to develop homegrown solutions to emerging health problems, like the manufacturing of essential medicines, vaccines, and other products. A sustainable bioeconomy offers part of the solution.
We highlight some of the emerging bioeconomy opportunities in healthcare delivery, bio-packaging, and the role of policy in fostering bioeconomy development.
Africa can build a bio-based healthcare sector that addresses regional priorities. Countries, local industry and development partners can mobilise resources, including local talent and leveraging international partnerships to develop solutions, based on locally sourced pharmaceutical ingredients from a vast array of traditional and indigenous knowledge systems.
At the University of Burundi, for instance, scientists are working with industry to develop low cost, highly efficient and innovative mosquito-repellent products that help control and reduce malaria incidence. The repellant is based on essential oils extracted from Catnip and other locally grown plants.
Reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions is another challenge that presents opportunities for the African bioeconomy. The actions by countries in the region like Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya to put in place policy and regulatory measures, which limit the use, manufacturing and import of plastic bags, is creating incentives for alternative bio-based packaging products. Fabric-based bags, non-woven bags, pulp paper-based bags, woven bags (using sisal and cotton fibres), and recycled textile material are now commonly used in the region.
Entrepreneurs in Kenya are investing in the novel production of cassava bags made from cassava starch that is biodegradable within six months.
Cassava bags can now be produced locally from waste cassava peeling residues.
A growing bio-packaging industry using bio-based materials from renewable resources from the region has the potential to generate jobs and incomes locally as well as reducing post-harvest losses in the agri-food sector.
The successful realisation of sustainable bioeconomy in the region, moving from promise to practice, will require governments, industry, and the private sector to do things differently.
There is a need to create a conducive policy environment at both the regional and national levels.
Fortunate Muyambi is the acting executive secretary of the East African Science and Technology Commission. Dr Philip Osano is the director, Stockholm Environment Institute Africa Centre. Dr Julius Ecuru is the manager for BioInnovate Africa