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News, 1/25/2017

Innovation to Transform the Future of Africa’s nutrition and health

Finnish funded biosciences project (BioFISA) supports the biosciences-related product development and market introduction in the SADC countries. Hubmanager of Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (SANBio) Dr Sechaba Bareetseng gives an insight into the topic. Article was released also in Mail & Guardian.

Policymakers have emphasised that the African continent needs science, technology and innovation to contribute towards transformation of food, nutrition and health statuses and fast-track the continent’s socio-economic development.

Although progress has been made on the policy and strategy levels, such as the development and endorsement of Science and Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa-2024 (STISA-2024), the SADC Framework for African Traditional Medicine, the SADC Industrialisation Strategy (2015-2063) and the SADC IKS Policy, to name just a few examples, more needs to be done in implementing  these policy and strategic interventions – through allocating funding to strategic and collaborative projects, for instance. African health systems are strained by the high burden of life-threatening communicable diseases (such as malaria, HIV and TB) coupled with increasing rates of noncommunicable diseases such as hypertension, cancer and coronary heart disease. As of November 2016, the human population of Africa was 1.2 billion, of which 30% resides in Sub-Saharan Africa. Also in Africa, nutrition-related factors contribute to about 45% of deaths in children younger than five.

Photo by SANBio BioFISA II

Innovation in health and nutrition must be everyone’s concern, especially if we are to eradicate hunger, combat food insecurity and prevent and control diseases across the continent. Developing innovations to transform the health and nutritional status of Africa must therefore be a joint effort that includes local and indigenous communities as well as private sector companies. It is unlikely to be achieved by governments and international organisations alone.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the percentage of people who are undernourished in Sub-Saharan Africa has decreased from the 1990-92 level of 34%, but the numbers themselves have increased by 43 million. This effectively means that progress in reducing hunger is not keeping pace with population growth. Of the 178 million children under the age of five suffering from stunting in all developing countries, 57 million (32%) are in Africa.

At the Science Forum South Africa 2016 held in December, the topic for NEPAD Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (NEPAD SANBio) was “Innovations to transform the health and nutritional status of Africa”. This topic reflects the theme of the Science Forum 2016, “Igniting Conversations About Science”, as well as its objectives. Health and nutrition challenges are priorities at the African Union and NEPAD and are key in their agendas for the continent’s socio-economic development. NEPAD SANBio works within the STISA-2024 priority areas which are to eradicate hunger, ensure food and nutrition security, and prevent and control diseases and ensure well-being.

Increase research & development investment

In most countries in Africa, the business sector invests relatively little in research and development, with governments being the most important funders. While governments and higher education institutions are the most important performers of R&D, most developing countries still invest less than 1 % GDP into R&D. There is a need for government to increase R&D investments and take a different path, moving away from basic to applied research. Many institutions are sitting on very novel technologies that can help in transforming the nutrition and health status of Africa. Science, Technology and Innovation form a global language, and for the SADC region and the continent to achieve its goal or attract funders, there is a need to encourage all SADC Member states to invest more in this field.

Scientific knowledge exchange

A lack of partnerships is one of the major constraints in making progress in solving persisting challenges such as malnutrition, undernutrition, as well as communicable and non-communicable diseases. It often seems most scientists prefer working in isolation or with people they are comfortable with, but sometimes moving out of their comfort zones is what is needed in order to achieve the desired goals. Government policy-makers must encourage collaboration between institutions and individuals on research projects. By fostering partnerships that share knowledge at a regional and transnational level, African researchers can be equipped with skills such as proposal writing, resource mobilisation and commercialisation. The Southern Africa Network for Biosciences has been working hard to encourage researchers from the SADC region to collaborate on projects of strategic importance to the region, through funding calls managed by a Finnish – Southern African Partnership Programme (BioFISA II), which uses seed and flagships grants as mechanisms to foster collaboration in food and health related projects.

The SANBio Network is a shared biosciences research, development and innovation platform for working collaboratively to address some of Southern Africa’s key biosciences issues in health, nutrition and health-related intervention areas such as agriculture and environment. The Network is comprised of 12 of SADC Member States and operates on a Regional Hub (The CSIR in South Africa) and Country Nodes model. The current NEPAD SANBio Member States are Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, South Africa, Seychelles, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The network finds that its mechanisms for project implementation and capacity building are more effective than other models, as even after the funding cycle, the researchers still continue working together and the spirit of collaboration is still there.

Dr Sechaba Bareetseng
SANBio Hub Manager
CSIR, Pretoria

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Updated 1/25/2017

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