By BLAKE MARCHESE
Saturday, December 1, 2012.
ACCRA, Ghana –
Tucked away from the streets of the city, about 20 undergraduates sit in a cramped room of the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI), weary from the day’s work. The close quarters are not a nuisance to them, and instead they would rather see it filled to the brim.
“We have friends who wish they could be with us, but for money or whatever reason could not join us,” said Ezekial Addo, a rising junior at the Kwame Nkrumah Institute of Technology in Kumasi. He and 91 other fellow students have gathered for a one-month summer program in biotechnology. Most hail from Kumasi, over four hours away, and one even from Nigeria.
Josephine Nketsia-Tabiri welcomes the driven youths, who are drawn not by dreams of money, but change. “The ultimate goal is for us to solve our own problems, here in Ghana,” said Tabiri. “We cannot sit on the sidelines and expect someone to do it.”
In 2003, she and other Ghanaians knew it was time for a change and began formulating the Ghana Biosafety Bill, which the late president, John Atta-Mills approved last year.
More than an achievement for science development in Ghana, it established the Ghana Biosafety Authority, putting in place the first legal framework for the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Any person or institution wanting to conduct research, transport, or sell GMOs will have to apply to the authority for approval.
In a country struggling with food security, GMO crops and other biotechnology hold great promise. The government is trying to push harder in this direction, according to Nelson Obirih-Opareh of the Science & Technology Policy Research Institute, responsible for policy recommendations to the government.
For Tabiri and other scientists, the legislation’s importance means much more.
“There is a need for us to develop the capacity, either to deploy [genetic engineering] or make sure it doesn’t come,” said Tabiri. “At least we have the opportunity to go the other way.”
That was her response to anti-GMO sentiment she faces. Skeptics exist all over the world who fear gene manipulation’s potential risks of creating toxic crops, and many have tried to organize and thwart the effort.
“These NGOs, they are mostly coming from the outside and they form the NGOs for the Ghanaians sake. And they were all foreigners talking. They were asking whether we think we can do the monitoring. And I was like ‘What are you taking us for?’” Tabiri said.
Before the bill, only basic genetic research such as the use of gamma ray radiation on plants to try and induce genetic mutations was permitted but producing results is terribly slow.
Achieving research autonomy will require time and resources. Collaboration with institutions abroad on higher level GMO research is now permissible with the bill, but the dream is for the research to be homegrown.
For the BNARI and similar institutions, hope exists for securing the necessary funding. The Export Development and Investment Fund recently expanded to become the Export Development and Agricultural Investment Fund (EDAIF).
“Whoever has the money decides what is researched,” said Tabiri. “Fortunately the [EDAIF] is supporting local research, but not everyone is so fortunate”
For some scientists though, their faith in the potential of biotechnology transcends such funding and institutional barriers. Sammy Sackey, a biochemistry professor at the University of Ghana began the first and only commercial tissue culture laboratory in West Africa, Ghana Biochemical Products Ltd.
The BRNAI and some other institutes do tissue culture but focus on research. Tissue culture, separate from genetic engineering, is a process in which saplings are grown by cutting off parts of seedless plants and placed in a special growth medium. The technique is used to produce disease free saplings to increase yield.
Beginning the project in 1999, it took him until 2005 to acquire the $350,000 needed to start the company. He was forced to mortgage his home and borrow from friends in order to convince foreign investors.
“There is this idea that things in the developing world should be simple and primitive,” Sackey said. “It had never been done before and people were skeptical. You have to show them that you believe.”
Despite apparent obstacles, he continued to believe.
“In the US, you have an agency that you can buy the certified material, know for certain it is the right plant and disease free,” Sackey said. “After tissue culture you can send it to a distributor.”
Instead, he took matters into his own hands. His company has to maintain his own “parent garden,” to acquire the material, test to make sure it is healthy, and maintain a greenhouse to store the product post-lab.
Although the Biosafety Act does not put in place any changes in regards to tissue culture, the progress of biotechnology regulatory agencies is progress he knows one day will aid his company.
“Things will change. That’s the thing with pioneering. They will see what you have done and see that it is a value-chain process.”
Ultimately, the fate of biotechnology depends on future generations, and Marian Addy, a retired biochemist, is working to bring the same vigor to science education.
In 2008 she was appointed president of the Anglican University College of Technology, still under-construction. The university will have three campuses spaced throughout Ghana to bring science education access to more remote regions.
Still in the process of finding funding, it will take many more years, according to Addy. The challenge of funding a science based university has not deterred her.
“When we first started, the church said ‘let’s just do business and management, that’s what everyone else is doing’ and I said no,” said Addy. “There’s a gap here, so let’s fill it. Other people think it’s too difficult, so let’s do it.”
Her advocacy work began long ago. She has served as the director for the Science Education Programme for Africa in the 1970s, which promoted pre-tertiary science education. Future endeavors led her to win the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science in 1999.
In May, Addy released an autobiography titled “Rewards.” At her book launch in Accra, the auditorium filled with friends, former students, and professors who revered her. A former student, proudly proclaimed: “Professor Addy has showed us science is not to be feared.”
Blake Marchese participated in New York University Journalism’s 2012 ‘Reporting Africa program.