Nigeria's fate in biotechnology

Remmy Nweke

It is estimated that 15 years from now, 50 per cent of the global economy will be bioeconomy-based, according to the Minister of Science and Technology, Prof. Turner Isoun, as recently stated in an address to the 8th international conference of the Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), held in Port Harcourt. Hence, by 2020, any nation which does not align itself economically with biotechnology, may miss out on the rewards of yet another revolution.

Biotechnology can be defined as the manipulation of biological organisms to make products that benefit human beings. Biotechnology can therefore contribute to areas such as food production, waste disposal, mining and medicine. Many valuable products are currently produced on a global scale using these technologies, such as penicillin, beer and biodegradable plastic.

Prof. Isoun noted that Nigeria as a nation is endowed with enormous bioresources across all its six main ecological zones, namely mangrove/swamp, rainforests, derived savannah, montane/plateau, savannah and semi-arid. He said that what matters most is how Nigeria uses the new Information Technology (IT) domain of bioinformatics to drive the growth and development of modern biotechnology in the country.

The Bayelsa State governor, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, highlighted the recent technological-economic survey of the chemicals and pharmaceutical sector of the nation's economy by the Raw Materials Research and Development Council of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. Of 476 indispensable raw materials currently needed by the local pharmaceutical industry, for instance, only 16 are locally sourced.

Recently it was reported in the news that Bill Gates (Microsoft), provided a grant of over $400 million to Pioneer Hybrid, a large agricultural biotechnology company, for use in improving health in developing countries. Pioneer is expected to spend the next two years using their technology to fight hunger and will soon commence work on the next generation of crops to feed people in Africa.

Pioneer aims to improve sorghum both nutritionally and in terms of its drought tolerance, to enable widespread cultivation of the crop in Africa. Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda were fingered as the nations where experiments would soon take place. Pioneer scientists intend to work with African scientists to bring the new technology back home with them.

For Mr. Eric Idehen, who left Nigeria over five years ago, "this kind of research could help the large majority of my country men living in poverty escape its clutches." He stressed that Nigerians have the land to farm and want to work but most often do not have a crop worth growing. Even as experts from Pioneer hope to market the first generation of the enhanced Sorghum within a year, thus bridging the gap between the science of those who have and those who need it most.

In conclusion, it appears that Nigeria needs to throw its considerable weight behind the development of biotechnology so as to benefit its citizens. In this way, Nigeria may quite realistically achieve its dream of self-sufficiency in food production by 2020.


July 2005