Future-Proof: How Science, Technology and Policy Innovation Are Driving Africa’s Bioeconomy Transition
In 2022, the Malabo Montpellier Panel published a report that made the case for African countries to embrace a bioeconomy approach to meet their food systems transformation and economic growth ambitions. To better understand how governments approach the development of a thriving bioeconomy, we ran an in-depth analysis of the experience of four systematically selected African countries that are in the lead of developing their own, context-specific bioeconomies. Little did we know while embarking to write the report, how different a bioeconomy in Namibia is from a bioeconomy in Rwanda, South Africa or Uganda. While requiring an overarching strategy and vision, bioeconomy approaches can range from small-scale and artisanal approaches to large, industrial-scale interventions. The key is that a bioeconomy leverages a country’s or region’s very specific local conditions and natural competitive advantages to drive the transformation of a country’s economy.
Globally, more than 70 countries already have bioeconomy plans or strategies in place to spur economic growth. In Africa, South Africa has a defined bioeconomy strategy, while over a dozen African countries are in the process of drafting theirs. The East African Community (EAC) has become Africa’s first regional economic community (REC) to have drafted and is currently implementing a regional bioeconomy strategy covering the period until 2031-2032.
But, let me take a step back and clarify what we — the Malabo Montpellier Panel — define as a bioeconomy. Firstly, there is not one universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a bioeconomy. However, we opted to adopt the definition put forward by the Global Bioeconomy Summit in 2018: “Bioeconomy refers to the application of science, technology and innovation to the sustainable production and use of biological resources to create innovative products, processes and services for all economic sectors.” Thus, a bioeconomy extends the use of biomass beyond food, feed and fiber to include a range of pharmaceutical, industrial and other value-added products, such as green chemicals, industrial materials and energy.
Within the context of an ever-rapidly changing climate, the need to preserve and conserve the natural resources upon which we depend, the need to strengthen the resilience of communities and economies, the need to drive youth employment and the need to enhance women’s economic empowerment — bioeconomy may not be a silver bullet, but it can be a serious gamechanger.
The development of a bio-based economy presents several opportunities for rural development in Africa. If adopted based on principles of inclusivity, sustainability and accountability, a bioeconomy can drastically reduce poverty by increasing job opportunities and ensuring resilient and stable incomes. This is particularly important for Africa’s rural areas where a vibrant bioeconomy can increase agricultural productivity and support the expansion of agro-industries. There are also opportunities for protecting, conserving and restoring biodiversity and their habitats, as well as climate change mitigation. While this blog is beyond the scope of diving into all the opportunities in detail, I’d like to zoom in on just a couple.
Natural resource management
A transition to a bioeconomy can help to ensure a sustainable utilization of land, water, air, minerals, forests, fisheries and wild flora and fauna through more efficient bioeconomic production and processing practices, reducing input demand and providing new sources of nutrients for people from biomass products.
“A central tenet of bioeconomy is the efficient use of natural resources and the circularity of products through the recycling and reuse of waste.” —Malabo Montpellier Panel, 2022.
The opportunities to develop new value-added products from waste, especially agricultural waste, offer some of the most noteworthy prospects for developing a bioeconomy. The application of cutting-edge bioscience and biotechnology to reuse and transform waste from agro-processing and other value-adding sectors, such as livestock, coffee, cotton, wood, sisal fiber and fruit, offer clear entry points for Africa’s bioeconomy development. For example, Nigeria is the highest producer of cassava in the world and generates millions of tons of solid and liquid wastes from its production and use. Evidence points to a high potential for Nigeria’s private sector to produce biofuels and bioelectricity using microbial fuel cell technology, and value-added biochemicals from effective management of cassava waste. Similarly, the development of packaging for cushioning soft fruits and vegetables from banana pseudostem provides an interesting example of the circular use of biomass in producing innovative products and a strong business case. Globally, waste from banana harvests, including pseudostem, leaves and peels, has been estimated to amount to 114 million metric tons of biomass per year.
Climate change resilience and mitigation
The growing demand for biomass also offers opportunities to mitigate and adapt to climate change and support the decoupling of the agricultural sector from environmental degradation. Currently, several global mitigation scenarios rely on large emissions reductions across the agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) sector and concurrent deployment of reforestation/afforestation and biomass use. Among these, the transition to a low-carbon, fossil-free global economy is expected to depend extensively on bioenergy. Low-efficiency, traditional biomass already forms a large source of energy for cooking, lighting and heating across Africa, often with serious negative impacts on health and living conditions, particularly for women and girls, and deforestation. High-efficiency, modern bioenergy can therefore play an important role in providing improved “green” energy to nearly 73% of the continent’s residents who remain disconnected from the grid, while improving local air conditions and the pressure on Africa’s forests. A partnership facilitated by BioInnovate Africa brings together scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to develop new fuels for rural households from food waste.
Global climate action is catalyzing a relocation of energy production to regions with abundant low emissions of energy and feedstocks for bioenergy. This is likely to provide significant benefits for recipient countries, including employment and income generation. If combined with restorative agriculture and forestry, bioenergy and other bioeconomy programs, this can sequester emissions and help to protect and conserve biodiversity too. Greater adoption of locally adapted, climate-smart agriculture and forestry approaches can also offer co-benefits in food security, livelihoods, biodiversity and health aspects. Tree plantations can be a source of pulp, timber and fuelwood, thereby relieving pressure on natural forests, while timber products in construction and industry can mitigate emissions from steel and cement production.
An enabling policy environment
At the political level, continental frameworks in Africa can propel the development of sustainable bioeconomies. Several objectives and targets under the Malabo Declaration commitments and the African Union Agenda 2063 are supportive of the development of a bioeconomy with frameworks for biomass production, improving value addition across biobased value webs, and raising the quality of science, technology and innovation (STI). In addition, strategies on energy, mining, industrialization and climate change can accelerate the transition to a bio-based economy. At the same time, bioeconomy can also enable governments to meet their global development and climate commitments.
Executing a bio-based transition is a long-term commitment that requires clarity of vision, policy coherence, continuity and partnerships, and it requires an effective prioritization of investments, be it in human capacity, science infrastructure, innovation systems or financial tools and mechanisms. Policy tools can be tailored to reflect the scale, scope and stage of transition. They can focus either on specific industries and sectors or aim for a comprehensive, economy-wide transformation. Governments across the world are adopting their specific paths toward a bioeconomy transition. Brazil and Tanzania are focused on raising productivity in their agricultural sectors, while South Africa, Kenya and several developed nations are focused on transitioning away from fossil fuels, fostering more efficient biomass use and building new industries and sectors. Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria and Senegal initiated their bioeconomy development via biofuels and bioenergy, while Mauritius has developed a strategy for its “blue” (oceans) economy. South Africa first implemented a biotechnology strategy in 2001 and has since scaled up its bioeconomy vision through a fully fledged bioeconomy strategy. In 2013, the Department of Science and Technology launched a bioeconomy strategy to foster backward linkages with three key sectors: agriculture, health and industry.
An alternative avenue to initiate the development of a bioeconomy can be through long-term climate change strategies. As part of their commitments to global climate frameworks, African governments are developing plans to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In many cases, these have also been cross-referenced to other economic sectors, such as agriculture and forestry. For example, Kenya’s National Climate Change Action Plan for 2023-2027 promotes the expansion of agroforestry to reduce emissions from its AFOLU sector while promoting initiatives to enhance the competitiveness of agroforestry products and services in the global and regional markets. Not only can this make a significant difference in one of the largest sources of the country’s emissions, but it can also strengthen the adaptive capacity and resilience of its farmers.
The case for an African bioeconomy strategy
A bioeconomy can offer clear opportunities to address several challenges concurrently. However, its success will rely on identifying trade-offs in advance and collaborating across stakeholder groups to develop inclusive solutions. It is now up to Africa’s policymakers to create a conducive enabling environment that can leverage the continent’s abundant natural resources, a growing population that is increasingly well-educated, a steadily improving research and development (R&D) infrastructure, as well as rapid digitalization. Incentives and a coherent policy environment are required to mobilize the continent’s entrepreneurial private sector, finance and research environments to advance the development of a sustainable bioeconomy. The hosting of the Global Bioeconomy Summit 2024 in East Africa would be a strong signal that Africa is in a position to shape the global discourse on the transition to a bioeconomy, show leadership and leapfrog, perhaps with an eye for further regional integration and the development of a continental strategy.