The paradox of Africa: Very rich in natural and bio-resources but poor in wealth

Africa has, despite being rich in natural resources, been unable to effectively manage its wealth and ensure that this is reflected in the improved livelihoods of its citizens. This issue can be addressed by incentivizing research and innovation through collaborative efforts between institutions in the academic and business sectors and strategic investment. Bio-Innovate ( attempts to bridge the gap between theoretical research and palpable products and services that can compete in the global market.

 It goes without saying that the African continent is endowed with abundant natural resources, despite being quoted as having the lowest per capita GDP. This points to, among other things, failure of most nations in Africa to effectively and efficiently manage and translate natural resources into wealth that in turn raises national incomes and improves the livelihood of the populace. This points to a couple of things: the continent needs to capitalize on its natural resources with emphasis on bio-resources in an eco-efficient manner and increase the output of products and services that are competitive on a global scale. To achieve this Africa will need to create an administrative and regulatory environment that encourages investment in research and innovation and incentivises the private sector to participate in innovation activities.

Bio-Innovate is a regional initiative established in 2010 to support bio scientific research and innovation activities in the eastern African countries of Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The goal of the program is to bridge the gap between research, innovation and end users by providing specific services to support innovation processes spear-headed by public research organizations in partnership with the private sector in the eastern Africa region. By forming strategic partnerships with the relevant organizations, the programme provides funding for scalable and impactful bio scientific innovative ideas, project management backstopping, technology and business incubation, intellectual property management support, feasibility and techno-economic analysis, capacity building at both technical and business level as well as innovation policy analysis.

The program applies an innovation system approach to create an innovation platform that brings together key players along the innovation chain to support innovation processes as well as address innovation policy issues. Bio-Innovate supports bio scientific innovations in agriculture, industry as well as environmental sustainability and climate change related projects.

The innovations are geared towards supporting the smallholder farmers, improve crop productivity, mitigation of the impact of climate change on agricultural sector and the agro processing industries, adding value to bio-resources in an eco-efficient manner whilst improving their competitiveness. Bio-Innovate is particularly interested in helping and supporting public sector researchers move their innovations to the market place and promoting the active participation of the private sector in innovation activities.

 There is limited capacity for research organizations and academia in the region to move research output from the experimental phase to the market.  Public institutions tend to be academically oriented as they place emphasis on teaching and publication of scientific papers, and they generally lack the infrastructure to support innovation processes. The lack of an innovation culture is exacerbated by limited funding and the insufficient knowledge of intellectual asset management and research translation.

 In order to successfully put research innovation in the business sector/market, a couple of things will need to be accomplished. Governments in the region need to formulate and implement the necessary policy, institutional and regulatory framework that supports innovation activities including channelling more funds towards research and providing incentives for the private sector to actively participate in innovation activities. Researchers should be trained on basic principles of research translation including intellectual asset management, value proposition and basic principles of business development.

It’s important to partner researchers and already established businesses as they can and should address each other’s specific needs. Platforms or forums that bring together researchers and businesses to address specific technological needs should be encouraged and supported by governments and development agencies. Both academia and businesses need to reach out to each other in deliberate efforts to bring about cooperation in future projects. The private sector needs to better understand and acknowledge the infinite possibilities offered by the public sector when it comes to addressing the demand for technological solutions that address their challenges while on the other hand the public sector should actively reach out to the business community to demonstrate their capabilities and tap into their knowledge of the market and investments.

 One of the most important lessons that Bio-Innovate has learned in implementing bioscience innovation projects is that the commercial aspect of any idea should be assessed and nurtured right from the start, and that the right partners should be identified early. Its important to have the right capital, human, resources and time, as, the human capacity and investments required to commercialize a scientific idea tend to increase after the experimental and testing stage.

When it comes to investments for business aspects of product development, we have to tap into non-traditional sources of funding to support commercialization activities. Researchers may also need to be appraised on the basic principles of business in addition to the need for incubations centres and services that would be fundamental to nurture fledgling business ideas and startups.

As researchers start to look at commercializing the products of their research, they could benefit from the support of organizations with some experience in the area such as business angel networks, venture capital companies, business incubators and accelerators, startup blogs and social networks as their knowledge and network can provide the support needed for the commercialization processes.

Researchers can and should play a fundamental role in the development of new ventures, products and services, as they tend to have the necessary knowledge to come up with innovative ideas, however it’s important to keep in mind that an understanding of how to manage intellectual assets and value proposition will be essential for most researchers. Modern biosciences offer unlimited opportunities for researchers to come up with bio-innovations that can translate into ventures, products and services.

 As a researcher I find that the most inspiring part about the work that Bio-Innovate is doing is that they are addressing a need that will help translate the vast amount of bio resources available in the region into products, services and ventures that will increase the wealth and improve the livelihoods of the people through the application of modern biosciences. There is real opportunity for scientists to exercise the intellectual skills and use them to add value to the bio-resources in the region in a sustainable manner.

 Bio-Innovate is currently launching phase II that will move some of the technology developed in phase I further along the innovation chain and to the market, it is also as always working on scouting for and identifying new ideas for funding. Phase II will consolidate gains and integrate lessons learned from phase I in establishing a machinery that actively supports bioscience innovation processes and provides a forum/platform for public and private sector to jointly innovate in the eastern Africa region.


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Article by: Allan Liavoga

Allan Liavoga Innovation

Allan Liavoga, Program Manager at International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)