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Electronic Journal of Biotechnology

versión On-line ISSN 0717-3458

Electron. J. Biotechnol. v.5 n.1 Valparaíso abr. 2002


EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458
© 2002 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile

Development of Biotechnology in South Africa

Stephanie G. Burton*
Department of Chemical Engineering
University of Cape Town
Rondebosch 7700
Cape Town, South Africa
Tel: 27 21 650 2516
Fax: 27 21 689 7579

Don A Cowan
Department of Biotechnology
University of the Western Cape
Bellville 7050
Cape Town, South Africa

*Corresponding author


Biotechnology in South Africa stands at a cross-roads. As a country with huge natural resources, equally huge social problems, and in a state of positive transition to full multi-cultural development, SA faces the complex task of effectively exploiting its science, technology and resource base for the benefit of its society. The potential of Biotechnology for social and economic development has only recently been a focal point. There are signs, at all levels from central administration to individual tertiary institutions, that the first decade of the 21st century may be the point where Biotechnology ‘comes of age’ in South Africa.


South Africa is unusual amongst developing countries, having only a short history of independent development and democracy, but having a well-developed economic and commercial sector which has been based largely on natural resources such as mineral and agricultural wealth. Among its unique characteristics are its unusual petrochemical industry, developed as a result of a past situation in which political pressure necessitated the development of a national fuel supply.  As a result, South Africa has a successful coal-to-oil process, using local coal resources, but also currently being adapted to utilize gas, and giving rise to an extensive coal-based chemical industry.   South Africa also enjoys immense mineral wealth in terms of precious metals, industrial metals and diamonds, a rich environmental diversity and highly favourable conditions for agriculture and agro-industry.

Nevertheless, the country faces serious pressures arising from a burgeoning population, low employment, widespread poverty, and serious health issues, not the least of which is an extremely high incidence of HIV-AIDS, with its accompanying set of problems relating to health care, drug administration, social pressures and depletion in the work force.   The country’s government has initiated a number of progressive programs in areas of housing, health, education and economic development, but progress continues to be constrained by limited financial resources and an inefficient and cumbersome administrative structure.

The resources available for the development of Biotechnology in South Africa, and in fact, all other areas of scientific research and development, are severely limited.  As is the case in most developing countries, the proportion of the national budget directed towards science R&D is very much lower than in first world countries.  In addition, in recognition of national pressures and needs, there are firmly-established national priorities for utilization of available resources in any area of development.  This results in strong government influence on research direction and development of new research programmes in the country. It is perhaps both far-seeing and appropriate that the SA government has adopted, as one of the areas in which to focus its research support, the field of Biotechnology.   There are various funding mechanisms now in place to support research and development at various stages, with particular incentive being given to development of Biotechnology industry.

Biotechnology in South Africa has, until recently, focused mainly on first-generation applications such as those in the food industry. There are well-developed industries involved in brewing and food production, and in particular, a high-profile wine industry.  More recently, activities around developing Biotechnology industries based on the chemical, biochemical and pharmaceutical markets have progressed rapidly, particularly with the advent of the government prioritisation of Biotechnology and the establishment of a number of national and international collaborative research programmes.

Major progress has been made in developing research activity in the health sector in South Africa.  The medical research community are engaged in a number of high-level programmes addressing issues in a wide range of areas, including HIV-AIDs, TB, malaria and non-infectious diseases prevalent in South Africa. International pharma is already actively participating in these research programmes.

Research directed to address local needs, (such as in the agricultural field), while necessary and of major importance to national needs, tend to have lower international visibility and weight. However, South Africa has a long-standing and productive research activity in the area of plant biotechnology, which has earned international recognition for its major contribution to development of genetically improved crops suited for African needs.  Although the “GMO debate” continues globally, it is a common view that developing countries, especially in Africa, cannot afford to reject GM-crops while food shortages and crop failures remain prevalent.

While it may be considered that environmental research is a luxury in countries where poverty and health needs appear more urgent, environmental stability is more fragile in many developing countries due to climatic as well as economic reasons.  Thus, ensuring sustainability while allowing development of industry is a very urgent need.  Specifically, water resources are very limited in South Africa. 

Like many developing countries, the biodiversity of South Africa provides a very valuable resource.  This has not escaped the attention of international bioprospecting companies, who have already initiated programmes investigating South African biodiversity.  It is regarded as urgent and essential that the national interest should be protected, and that benefit-sharing and intellectual property protection systems should be more effective than at present, which in turn requires more effective legislation and legal systems.  

Linking issues of biodiversity, conservation and medicine, innovative programmes have been initiated in South Africa, to explore and develop local indigenous knowledge of medicinal substances. However, the potential for successful drug discovery will only be realized if there are sufficiently effective mechanisms in place to take the discoveries from the forest to factory in a sustainable manner.  This will require the establishment of a stronger infrastructure for drug testing, technology transfer and marketing as well as primary research. Other major genomic resources (e.g., microbial diversity) are virtually unexplored. Given that 99% of existing microbial species in any environment have not yet been cultured, and that the environmental diversity of South Africa offers a huge range of microbial habitats, it can be predicted with some confidence that this country harbours millions, and possibly tens of millions of new microbial genomes. The true value of such genome diversity is impossible to calculate with any accuracy. Nevertheless, since the annual global value of existing microbial products (foods, enzymes, drugs etc) is counted in tens of billions of dollars, we might expect that new organisms, genomes and genes can contribute to or share in this market. This calculation must, however, be seen the context of the cost of the research and development required to exploit this resource. Third-generation technology is expensive, but first-generation level funding will only yield first generation level products!

In the area of manufacture of materials and chemicals, South Africa has an active chemical industry, now being enhanced by local research activity in the area of biotransformations. This is creating a vital link between Biotechnology research and market demand, particularly in the areas of fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Nevertheless, the linkage between basic/applied research activities and commercial exploitation is rightly perceived as an area of weakness in South African science. There are many factors underlying this position; the small academic base, the absence of a development orientated research culture, few if any large third-generation national or international biotechnology companies, inexperienced technology transfer organizations in many Universities, and others. Only recently have their been positive signs at many levels that this situation is being actively addressed.  The publication of a National Bioetchnology strategy document, the announcement by DACST of a mechanism for establishing Regional Innovation Centres, the recent evolution of South Africa’s first Biotechnology-directed Venture Capital company, and the formation of the Cape Town-based Cape Biotechnology Initiative, are all signs that Biotechnology is coming of age. In reality, the exploitation of academic research in South Africa is roughly where the UK stood in the late 1980’s. Our development may be slower, but there is a positive drive at all levels, and the conservative ‘ivory tower’ attitudes of some of the larger UK Universities of that time are notably absent in this country.

Among the challenges presented to South Africa as a developing country is the need for highly skilled and highly trained people who will remain in their country and contribute to national development.  While there is certainly a need for international mobility for these people, to facilitate their training, a serious “brain drain” currently exists as a result of these individuals being attracted to international positions.  One of the ways in which this loss of trained personnel can be addressed is to foster more effective training within the country, which would in turn be assisted if there was improved access to information technology and scientific databases, implementation of modern technologies, and installation of sophisticated equipment and facilities at research and training institutions.

There is a global perception that developing countries are not able to conduct high-level research, which has impact on the amounts of international funding made available.  South Africa has a small but very active research community, characterised by a strong culture of interactive and cooperative research, and an ambitious generation of young researchers.

Opportunities exist for establishing partnerships with first world countries where bilateral research and cooperation programmes can contribute to capacity building.  There are already a number of international agreements in place, which fund and support such activities.

The reader is referred to a number of websites providing information relevant to Biotechnology in South Africa:

South African government White Paper on Science and Technology:

The National Biotechnology Strategy

International agreements for science and technology collaboration:

The Innovation Fund:

The issue of Biodiversity:

Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network

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