Nairobi bioscience hub takes Africa to the next scientific frontier

Appolinaire Djikeng
Appolinaire Djikeng

Before the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa (BecA) hub was established at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), scientists from Kenya and the region would flock foreign institutions to seek opportunities for research. Many would graduate from the institutions and opt to work in the host countries. But as Appolinaire Djikeng, the director BecA-ILRI Hub, explains to DAVID NJAGI, the facility is making technological leaps which could pull Africa from the food insecurity hole, 15 years on.

How has BecA-ILRI Hub helped Kenya specifically?

Before I get into the specifics, I want to acknowledge the government of Kenya for creating a conducive environment which has enabled the facility to develop a vibrant scientific community.

Specifically in Kenya, this facility has cemented our relationship with institutions like the University of Nairobi and Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation, where we have a major programme researching on livestock feed.

Through this programme, there is significant increase in livestock productivity in terms of milk production. We also have very strong relationships with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology where research on amaranth is ongoing.

Generally, what has the hub achieved 15 years on?

The facility has tackled the issue of livestock genetic diversity, where research has enriched the understanding of the external diversity of some livestock species to guide conservation activities and how to improve them.

Through partnerships with Karlo, UoN and CGIAR centres, the facility has been studying the maize lethal necrosis disease using genomics and bioinformatics. There is a possibility of developing a variety that would be resistant to this disease soon.

The BecA-ILRI Hub has also been researching neglected animal and crop species. We have demonstrated that we can work with some species that are not mainstream, but which are very significant to smallholder farmers within communities. They provide very strong and important access to animal resource produce.

Some of our achievements have actually convinced the world that Africa can talk about cutting-edge research with a lot of authority. Today, we enjoy very strong and progressive partnerships with advanced research institutions. Some are relocating and sending their scientists for extended periods of research time within Africa.

We are now beginning to demonstrate that we can generate evidence for policy makers to make important decisions.

How has the hub addressed brain drain?

Over the last 15 years, our efforts have focused on establishing a bioscience centre for excellence, to train African scientists to identify African issues related to agricultural productivity, and then to address them within the African context.

We target African scientists who are excited about some of the issues that they think they can address, to come and work with us at the facility in Nairobi. Here, they have access to a much bigger and global scientific community and high end scientific resources which significantly advance their research.

Through the capacity building programme, we run short training courses especially in genomics (a discipline in genetics) and bioinformatics (an interdisciplinary field that develops methods and software tools for understanding biological data), essentially targeting noble technologies and new knowledge which we integrate in our research.

We have set up technology platforms around genomics, bioinformatics, plant transformation, tissue culture, and also nutritional analysis to make sure we can drive our own activities as well as activities by other partners.

Could you share some of the challenges the facility has faced?

The biggest challenge is the appreciation of funding science in Africa. We really want to make sure that we build a tradition of funding research through African national governments.

What is the facility’s strategy for the next 15 years?

We have laid a very strong foundation and we are very hopeful that for the next 15 years or more, it will demonstrate that we can build a tradition of supporting our own scientists, to mandate them to identify Africa’s problems and provide solutions.