By Life Science Connect Editorial Staff
Africa may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about bustling biotech hubs. That’s something Adrienne Leussa, Ph.D., is aiming to change. Building on her background in biochemistry, drug discovery, education, and business development, she is also the founder and host of the African Biotech Conversations podcast. In a conversation with Matt Pillar, editor of Bioprocess Online, for the Business of Biotech podcast, Leussa spoke in detail about the state of biotech development in Africa.
“I don't think there's any place comparable to Africa,” said Leussa. The continent offers incredibly fertile ground for biotech development and innovation, driven by several key factors. Firstly, Africa has a high level of biodiversity, which remains largely unexplored. Secondly, individuals of African descent possess remarkable genetic diversity, which has proven to be a valuable resource in the biopharmaceutical field. Thirdly, Africa is experiencing a growing need for biotech solutions due to specific healthcare requirements and agricultural challenges.
Leussa noted that Africa boasts the world's youngest population, which has access to technology and information resources that older generations never had. The combination of youthful energy and technology, she added, is a major driver of innovation.
This realization is inspiring a growing number of entrepreneurs and innovators to recognize Africa's abundance of resources, talented individuals, and entrepreneurial spirit, facilitating progress and achievement.
Emerging Innovation Centers
At present, South Africa is leading biotech development and innovation on the continent, according to Leussa. The country has a long tradition of investing in education. The top five universities in Africa are based in South Africa. This is inspiring a lot of people to move to South Africa to capitalize on the education opportunities. As such, the South African government has several policies in place that enable people to stay and contribute to innovation.
But innovation is happening in almost every part of the continent. “You also have Kenya, which is in East Africa,” she said. “You have a very good ecosystem that is building up there. You also have Rwanda. Rwanda is positioning itself to be the technology hub in Africa. You have really great government incentives that are attracting startups, attracting foreign investment.”
While many people associate Egypt with the Middle East, Leussa noted it is part of Northern Africa and is also home to a lot of innovation in the biotech space. Nearby, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are making great strides in the biopharma space. Meanwhile, in West Africa, Nigeria boasts a higher-than-average proportion of young people who are increasingly entrepreneurial.
“So, I think in every region of Africa you find at least a country or two that are really driving the momentum,” she said. Leussa added that the upcoming Africa Free Trade Agreement could help accelerate African biotech development. The legislation aims to create a unified African market while also solving a large number of regulatory issues to help increase the circulation of goods and people.
Leussa acknowledged that many investors and innovators have historically overlooked Africa due to fears associated with regional politics and government instability. “If we're going to attract investment, if we're going to attract growth for the industry in Africa, there's got to be some guarantee of stability for those who are taking the risk to come and operate in Africa or operate within the African ecosystem,” she said.
Thankfully, she said, many African governments are increasingly supporting local entrepreneurs, as well as international investors. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the industry’s overreliance on the West for healthcare and other industry supply chains. This has prompted governments, private businesses, and nonprofits to work on closing these gaps. Organizations like the Africa CDC are rallying support for funding and skills building across the continent. African governments and organizations are beginning to unite to overcome some of these challenges in isolated pockets and regions and figure out how to combine forces and capabilities to tackle big challenges like healthcare or climate change. On the political front, this is inspiring positive changes in previously problematic governments and countries.
In addition, Leussa insisted that negative press about Africa tends to overshadow the larger volume of positive stories coming out of the continent. “We can't keep stigmatizing that Africa is risky on the political front, because there's so many other things that are going on in Africa beyond some of the stories and the headlines,” she said. “And when you look beyond the headlines you do see good stories, good success stories that are happening right here in Africa.”
Universities Leading The Charge
Academic institutions are at the forefront of the biotech and biopharma development in South Africa. Specifically, the University of Cape Town has departments in microbiology, biotechnology, and drug discovery. It’s H3D hub has been developing drugs and working in medicinal chemistry. The hub has also started a foundation to build capacity and enable other institutions across Africa to follow suit and have the same sort of success that they've had in recent years. In addition, Leussa highlighted the University of Witwatersrand and Northwest University, the latter of which has one of the only accredited centers for preclinical drug discovery and drug development in Africa. “They do a lot of work with both academics and industry in that space,” she said.
In recent years Africa has seen a lot of technology transfer, whereas in the past, much of the research was just for academic purposes. But now there's a push to translate these discoveries and research innovations from universities to commercialization.
Africa Bio is a nongovernmental organization that works very closely with states and governments to get support for startups to do just that. The organization hosts an annual convention in Durban, South Africa, called the Bio Africa Convention. The Innovation Hub and other incubators are also helping companies in the very early stages, supporting them with lab space and initial grant funding to get to that minimum viable product stage and raise other rounds of funding.
There are also investors and venture funds that are beginning to focus on biotech in Africa. “ONEBIO, based here in South Africa, is raising funds and they’ve got quite a good portfolio of companies that are going through them, trying to groom the next startups, hopefully unicorns in the space,” Leussa said.
She also mentioned BioCity, a public-private enabled organization that offers lab space to biotech-focused startups and offers skill building and capacity building, which has been expanding across Africa. Other support systems are coming from international companies that are looking now to Africa. They are building the ecosystem by providing funding, lending skills, or creating partnerships and collaborations.
Adapting To The Market
Businesses and investors should be aware that they cannot cut and paste what they’ve done elsewhere in the world and presume it will work in Africa, Leussa warned. “There are a whole lot of nuances that are unique to the African scene,” she said. Instead, business models have be adapted to the local ecosystem.
She also noted that a disproportionate number of African companies in biotech and biopharma are still young, with many in the pre-seed or early stages. These companies will need space to grow, evolve, and take up market share. As such, the manufacturing infrastructure will continue to need more attention as companies grow beyond co-locating in a university lab or just using a bench top space at an incubation hub and begin getting into initial manufacturing.
Lastly, Leussa added that more work is needed to implement policies that facilitate bio-entrepreneurship in Africa, particularly regarding the movement of data. “That’s a big deal in having people access the data, access samples, because even electronic medical records are not yet mainstream,” she said. “And that will continue to be a bottleneck for a lot of things if most things are done manually.”
Still, Leussa is confident that the pieces will come together, and that Africa will soon be recognized as a major center of biotech innovation and development. “At the end of the day, if Africa has a strong biotech ecosystem, everyone wins, because then we can better use the resources that are available for the good of everyone,” she said.