The South African government, biotech and growth


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South Africa is a country with so much untapped potential. Critics said South Africa would not be able to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup. After one of the most successful football spectaculars the world has ever seen, Spain left with the cup and the country now boasts formidable infrastructures and has exported vuvuzelas to the rest of the world. This shows that South Africa can deliver if its government and people are completely committed to a cause. The challenge now is to transfer this commitment, energy and enthusiasm to address other priorities of the country, such as poverty, unemployment, food security and the burden of diseases like TB and HIV/AIDS.

In addressing these challenges the government has long realized that part of the solution is using science and technology as the pillar to grow the economy. The South African government knows that science, technology and innovation play a critical role in economic growth and socio-economic development, and it knows that technology innovation is one of the critical policy areas required to speed up growth and transform the economy to one that is knowledge-based.

How best can this policy be implemented? The passing of the white paper on science and technology in 1996 led to the establishment of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), which has the responsibility for driving the national scientific research and innovation policy. The DST started by developing its research and development strategy, which was the foundation for technology innovation in the country. South Africa, like many other countries, also developed an interest in biotechnology and the role that it could play in economic growth. This resulted in development of a National Biotechnology Strategy in 2001. 

The guiding principles of that strategy were to ensure that it addressed the national imperatives and contributed to economic growth. To implement this, six biotechnology entities were established (each with a different mandate) to address government needs and priorities across the economy. These innovation centers are LIFElab, Cape Biotech, BioPAD, PlantBio, National Bioinformatics Network and the Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme.

Over a four-year period, these initiatives yielded the following: establishment of 78 active biotech companies; development and/or commercialization of 1,542 biotech products/services; generation and leveraged revenues greater than $100 million; creation of 2,051 biotech specific jobs and establishment of 16 technology platforms. These institutions have now been amalgamated into one agency known as the Technology Innovation Agency. 

I am the Senior General Manager-Infrastructure and Planning at the Technology Innovation Agency in South Africa. I lead our portfolio to ensure effective support in technology investments and incubation activities. I’ll have more to say on South African biotech and investment in future posts.

Blessed Okole

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