A FemBioBiz business bootcamp in Malawi training entrepreneurs in the biosciences sector

Building a globally recognised bioscience network to improve livelihoods in Southern Africa

Stronger through partnership: building a bioscience knowledge economy in Southern Africa

SANBio is a Southern African network designed to stimulate the growth of a bioscience knowledge economy between 13 countries. The resulting networking and partnership activities could one day lead to the discovery of scientific solutions to some of Africa’s most enduring problems.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) acts as the African Union’s technical arm in the pursuit of sustainable development and prosperity for Africans. However, the organization faces a variety of deep-seated challenges that not only hamper economic growth, but also the well-being of many African citizens on a personal level.

One of the biggest among these challenges is the health of Africa’s population. Illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis are pulling down the productivity of Africa’s workforce, which hampers efforts to stimulate employment and economic growth. Even so, the urgency of combatting these illnesses become glaringly apparent when simply looking at the wide-scale harm they do from a humanitarian point of view.

Added to this is the lack of food security in Africa, where the UN estimates 224 million people are under-nourished as of 2018. The numbers are drifting upward due to conflicts on the continent and the effect of global warming on the ability of Africa’s mostly rain-dependent farmers to cultivate crops and maintain their livestock. The livestock situation itself bears concern when a variety of factors, including various wide-spread illnesses, are weakening African herds.

NEPAD recognizes the nascent status of the biosciences sector on the continent as a threat to sustainable development and has launched the African Biosciences Initiative (ABI) in response. Wanting to stimulate a knowledge economy around biosciences that would offer greater depth than only selected pockets of brilliance in a few regions, NEPAD divided the ABI into five networks around which wider collaboration could take place.

SANBio and BioFISA support this seed project:

The cost-effective extraction and exportation of seed oil from Marula kernels, which has various cosmetic applications. The sourcing of wild Marula for the extraction process will create employment in rural areas, especially among women.

One of these networks, the Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (SANBio), was created in 2005 to strengthen regional collaborative bioscience research, development, and innovation activities in Southern Africa for sustainable economic development, animal and human health, food security, and environmental sustainability. The network currently covers 13 countries in Southern Africa: Angola, Botswana, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Seychelles, Republic of South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It has done so by establishing centres of excellence, or nodes, in several Southern African countries, with the intention of encouraging inter-country collaboration around their areas of expertise. This encourages wider networking, which in turn allows for the more efficient addressing of continent-wide problems, as well as the wider transmission of information.

An entrepreneur pitching in a recent FemBioBiz event in Zambia.

Partnering to Build a Stronger Network

In 2009, the Department of Science and Technology of South Africa and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland launched the Finnish–Southern African Partnership Programme to support the NEPAD SANBio Network (BioFISA). NIRAS was contracted to provide technical assistance during Phase II of BioFISA, which is running from 2015 to 2019.

The purpose of BioFISA II is to support the implementation of SANBio’s goals and business plan for 2013–2018 through technical assistance within three broad result areas: supporting an effective and dynamic regional research network, including the establishment of sustainable funding structures for collaboration; enhancing human and infrastructure capacity in the region; and supporting the development of innovative products within the priority focus areas of health and nutrition, including the development of entrepreneurial skills. The goal is to strengthen SANBio’s presence in the region, which means that BioFISA works according to SANBio’s methods, under SANBio’s name and branding.

SANBio and BioFISA support this seed project:

Commercialising Resurrection Bush tea, a plant found in Zimbabwe. Its leaves are drunk as a tea in small volumes in Zimbabwe and South Africa, but it could be more widely consumed, perhaps similarly to what is seen with Rooibos tea. The successful commercialization of Resurrection Bush tea could create employment for Zimbabwean women in rural communities.

SANBio and BioFISA are engaged in a variety of projects together. The funding of various bioscience projects is arguably the most important of these. BioFISA’s competitive funding mechanism works on three levels. The first level is seed funding of projects up to ZAR 1 million (about EUR 65,000), which is used to kick-start bioscience project collaborations between at least two countries and to encourage further private investments in the sector. Projects with the ability to build SANBio’s network that are in the later stages of the biosciences value chain and/or have the potential to scale up are preferred for selection, ensuring the feasibility and sustainability of selected projects after BioFISA has come to an end.

The second funding level is flagship project funding up to ZAR 4.5 million (about EUR 285,000), which is aimed at more sophisticated and challenging projects. As the problems addressed are more complex, flagship project funding requires collaboration between at least three SANBio member countries. The intention is for flagship project funding to be reserved for projects that would have qualified for seed funding, but that have already passed the concept phase and, through SANBio support, will go on to have a significant and lasting impact on the biosciences community, its beneficiary base, and/or commercial markets in the SANBio region.

Lastly, BioFISA and SANBio offer a mobility fund, which provides funding for traveling and networking activities in the SANBio region, as well as with international partners, such as research facilities in Finland.

Judging at a recent FemBioBiz pitching event in South Africa

In addition to their funding activities, BioFISA and SANBio are engaged in several other projects to promote SANBio’s objectives. These include providing training in grant writing, entrepreneurship, intellectual property issues around the commercialisation of bioscience products, etc.; and putting out a call for regional institutions to provide technical and entrepreneurship training in biosciences, such as food innovation workshops, mushroom cultivation courses, and a workshop around the study and harmonisation of documentation of gene banks in Southern Africa.

SANBio and BioFISA support this seed project:

A Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) diagnostic kit for Southern Africa that enables viral identification several months past the initial two-week active outbreak period. An Africa-specific FMD diagnostic will facilitate African countries’ efforts to improve their management and control of FMD, thereby improving local trade and food security, and facilitating African producers’ entry into lucrative foreign markets.

Other important projects for BioFISA are a youth science initiative and Student Ambassador Programme to encourage more prospective students to take up biosciences; and FemBioBiz, a programme that gives women leaders of bioscience-driven businesses regional exposure, access to international markets, funding, and incubation opportunities.

FemBioBiz is a business acceleration programme where women entrepreneurs in the Southern African biosciences sector take part in business training boot camps and competitions for prizes such as funding, incubation, and an opportunity to go to Slush, Europe’s biggest start-up event. The second season of FemBioBiz is taking place in eight participating countries (Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) and received over 500 entries. Of these, over 150 were selected for Phase 1, which entailed a three-day training course in the creation and pitching of business models. This phase ended with a competition where the entrepreneurs pitched their businesses to judges. The ninety strongest participants went through to Phase 2, which entails two boot camps and another pitching competition for the selection of the winning entrepreneurs in each country. The national winners then finally compete in Phase 3 for the grand prizes and a chance to go to Slush.

A FemBioBiz participant of the Namibian cohort

To find out more about SANBio, BioFISA, and FemBioBiz, visit www.nepadsanbio.org.

SANBio and BioFISA support this seed project:

Synmba, a sorghum-based symbiotic beverage to stimulate probiotic growth in the gut. The high price point of pharmaceutical and consumer probiotics currently in the market (such as upmarket, dairy-based beverages) means that many Africans are missing out on a potentially easy way to improve their health. In addition to providing a less expensive source of probiotics, Synmba will source sorghum from small and medium farmers, which could in the long run incentivize increased production of this crop, and thus improve food security.