AFRICA: New inventions and discoveries observatory

An Online Observatory for African Inventions and Discoveries has been launched, aimed at encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship to help meet the continent's development challenges.

The initiative was announced at a UN Economic Commission for Africa's Science with Africa conference, Science, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, held from 23-25 June in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The commission's Science with Africa Initiative is driving the project.

The online observatory aims to recognise African scientific innovations and discoveries and to facilitate their transformation into commercial assets, goods and services - particularly through increasing Africa's share of the world's patents, which are a key part of the knowledge economy.

Through fostering university-industry partnerships the observatory will boost scientific outputs and help Africans better manage, harness and capitalise on the benefits of their scientific knowledge.

In particular, the observatory will help to reduce biopiracy, currently rampant on the African continent. Biopiracy has emerged as a term to describe the ways that corporations from the developed world claim ownership of, free ride on, or otherwise take unfair advantage of, the genetic resources and traditional knowledge and technologies of developing countries.

For instance, the medicinal or nutritional properties of many African plants potentially offer enormous economic benefits, which have put patents for naturally existing plants at the centre of an ethical, commercial and legal global debate.

One vivid example of biopiracy, as provided in the UN Economic Commission for Africa's Call for Applications document is the Hoodia gordonii, a spiny succulent growing in arid regions with high saline soils, such as the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa.

For centuries the plant has been used as food by indigenous people. Further, one of the oldest tribes traditionally used the stems of hoodia as an appetite suppressant when undertaking long hunting trips.

But the plant's benefits were also discovered in the 1970s by South African soldiers occupying Angola, who observed that once a person had consumed some of the plant they could forgo food for several days.

In 1996, scientists at the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research were able to isolate the plant extract (which they called P57AS3) with the properties already known by the bush people, and recommended it as a supplement to reduce caloric intake.

In 1997, Phytopharm laboratory bought the licence to develop and market hoodia and today several biotech giants, including Pfizer and Unilever, share the benefits. Only since 2009 have the local people been eligible for any financial compensation for their traditional knowledge.

Thus a key focus of the online observatory will be on increasing awareness and sensitising African policy-makers, technologists, scientists and venture capitalists about the economic benefits to be derived from marketing African traditional knowledge from biological resources.

In a related development, in cooperation with the Association of African Universities, or AAU, the 95-member Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, AUCC, has launched a US$ 2.2 million initiative to strengthen African universities' relationships with local and regional industries.

The initiative, Strengthening Higher Education External Stakeholder Relations in Africa, was launched on 31 May.

Goolam Mohamedbhai, secretary general of the AAU, pointed out in a press release that universities are critical members of today's knowledge economy. In addition to generating knowledge and a highly skilled workforce, universities "create vital networks that bring people, knowledge and infrastructure together".

Speaking to University World News, Margaux Béland, director of partnership programmes at the AUCC, said: "AUCC's new partnership with the AAU is intended to strengthen African universities' relationships with local and regional industries."

Béland indicated that the project would create 27 new university-industry partnerships, with AAU member institutions benefiting. Through this partnership, financially supported by the Canadian International Development Agency, "African universities will be linked more closely with the private sector, positioning them to better develop the skills and knowledge to meet Africa's economic needs."

While the first stage of the programme will involve 15 institutional strategic plans, strategies and a training module, the second stage will support 12 African higher education institutions in highlighting proven university-industry linkages. The third and final stage will employ a survey to assess the relationships between the universities and their external stakeholders (such as government, the private sector and local communities) as well as stakeholder needs.

The selected 15 partners for the first phase are to be announced later this year.