THE government on Tuesday released a new bio-economy strategy that proposes setting up a R2bn venture-capital fund to support initiatives that aim to extract economic value from South Africa’s rich biological resources.
“The vision is for South Africa’s bio-economy to be a significant contributor to the country’s economy by 2030 … through the creation and growth of novel industries that generate and develop bio-based services, products and innovations,” says the strategy, launched in Pretoria by Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom.
In a prepared speech, he said the government was confident the strategy would “address the full value chain, going beyond the mere generation of new technologies to ensuring that technology development is informed by the needs of the country and people, and that social and economic value is generated”.
Mr Hanekom added: “Our country is home to almost 10% of the world’s known plant species and 15% of all known coastal marine species, including a newly identified lobster that has been named after Madiba (Munidopsis mandelai). This capital can be used to the country’s advantage.”
The venture-capital fund will be critical to the success of the strategy, said Jennifer Thomson, professor emeritus of microbiology at the University of Cape Town. She was among the many academics and private-sector experts consulted by the Department of Science and Technology in drafting the strategy.
“If we don’t have the fund, we may as well kiss the whole thing goodbye,” she said, explaining that venture-capital support was vital for the high-risk, early stages of product development.
Prof Thomson said South Africa had the world’s third-greatest diversity of biological resources, yet struggled to commercialise their potential.
She said one of the country’s biggest weaknesses in taking ideas from the laboratory bench to the pharmacy shelf or farmer’s field lay in the development or proof-of-concept stage.
The new strategy says the government should provide R300m-R400m to the venture-capital fund, with the rest coming from investors in the private sector.
It identifies three key sectors — agriculture, health and industry — and prioritises specific fields that should be developed in each of these.
In agriculture, the government wants to focus on locally developed, genetically modified crops and animal vaccines. In health, the push is to develop vaccines, AIDS drugs, and diagnostics and medical devices.
For industry and the environment, the strategy identifies reducing waste and using waste byproducts more effectively as areas of opportunity. It also says there is potential in manufacturing herbal products and medicines.
Within these sectors, the government would need to make tough decisions about which areas to fund, said Michael Pepper, director of the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Medicine and a professor in the department of immunology at the University of Pretoria, who consulted on the project.
“You have to prioritise the budget, even if it may not keep everyone happy,” Prof Pepper said.
The strategy was approved by Cabinet ministers last November and is aligned to the National Development Plan, the country’s economic blueprint to 2030.
How it would be implemented by government departments would be critical to its success, said Prof Thomson. The key departments involved are health; agriculture, forestry and fisheries; environment; trade and industry; rural development and land reform; energy; and mineral resources.