Prof. Francis Mulaa is an award-winning scientist and associate professor at the University of Nairobi. Prof. Mulaa is also a valued member of the African Union High Panel on Pan African University Academic Senior Staff Recruitment. At the University, Mulaa is the Dean (Ag) Faculty of Science and Technology.
In this interview, Mulaa discusses technology and the interface of its use in human endeavors.
In simple terms what is biotechnology?
Biotechnology is a misunderstood term and its definition so much abused and thus the bad perceptions existing about biotechnology. In simple man’s language biotechnology can be defined as the processes that arise from using biology as a production tool. The term biology itself is wide, it is a reference to plants, animals and microorganisms, therefore, anything produced using all these, and if it results into a process then , can be called biotechnological or biotechnology.
To further explain biotechnology, we can use the agricultural realm, where the processes in use, are based on plant and animal microorganisms as the production platform. As part of these processes, there are also microorganisms which can be manipulated mostly because they grow faster and they have smaller genomes and therefore have the widest range of application so far.
All these processes are basically, the sciences and the engineering that result in what we call biotechnology. The biotechnology that most people discuss is agriculture because people can see a plant or an animal, however, there are other processes that are not obviously visible , these especially are those where you use microorganisms. Inevitably the processes that use microorganisms are the most used, because they are also the easiest and it is in this area of microorganism processes that we should place a lot of effort.
“My area of interest and strength is in industrial and environmental biotechnology .This does not mean that other biotechnologies do not exist they are equally prominent”. In Kenya, the biotechnology that is most discussed is the genetically modified organisms (GMO). Although this biotechnology is discussed widely, it is the smallest of all the biotechnologies and the one we do not have the greatest strength in, albeit politically it is the loudest. It is important to note that industrial, environmental and agriculture technologies hold the greatest promise for the economy. For example, in agriculture, microorganisms or genes can be put on the plant, not only as protection but also to produce different things i.e., genetically modified organisms (GMO). The same microorganisms can be formulated into a spray that uses any chemical or you can use biological or what are known as bio pesticides. The biggest biotechnology industry currently existing in the country is for crop protection.
In any area where we used to use chemicals, biochemicals or biotechnology can now be used and indeed, their use in the chemical industry is slowly being supplemented or phased out in favor of biotechnological applications because these preserve the environment, mediate climate change, are less polluting and are biologically degradable.
What is the current state of biotechnology in Kenya?
The current status of biotechnology in Kenya is still in its infancy. While it is largely at the science stage, it is rather poorly practiced and part of the poor practice, has to do with our education system. It is clear that the education system is poorly designed and unresponsive to technology. The University of Nairobi, in response to the above, has added the word technology onto the title of the old Faculty of Science. The addition to the reviewed Faculty of Science and Technology is important for ascertaining that going upward, we don’t just discuss the science but also the processes that will arise from that science; technology refers to a process, and if there is no process then there is no technology.
What is technology?
Science and engineering often come together to produce a product. The process that produces the product is what is known as technology. If the process is biological then it is known as a biotechnology. The simplest biotechnology that people know is yogurt. The yogurt production process utilizes a microorganism whose science is known because while it is neither dangerous nor poisonous, it produces a different type of sour milk. The production process also requires equipment to control the acidity, alkalinity, the quantity of the microorganism, packaging and sale of the yogurt. This whole process is what makes yogurt and that is a biotechnology. The same is the same for Mursik. Mursik is a popular drink among the Kalenjin speaking people, but the truth is, we have not been able to develop this drink, into an industrial product , the same way we have developed yogurt . the reason is that we have not been able to put together the engineering and the science processes of mursik to make a mursik product that can be manufactured . if we did put in the engineering and science processes, we would have a mursik biotechnology.
There are many areas of biotechnology that we can exploit, some of them however are hindered by Government legislation or lack of Government legislation. The sugarcane industry in Brazil for instance, does not depend on sugar (that is why their sugar is cheap) rather, sugar is a byproduct, they depend on the molasses and bagasse which is more than 99 percent of the sugarcane. They use biotechnology, microorganisms and enzymes to digest the bagasse and the molasses into alcohol for the energy industry, which is the biggest industry in the world.
Here in Kenya, it is the opposite we depend on the sugar to finance the sugarcane industry then we throw away and burn the bagasse and molasses. This is throwing away wealth. What is needed is a policy to make sure that bagasse and molasses ,are the main products that the sugarcane industry is concentrating on. Interestingly, we may need to support, rather than kill the chang’aa industry because if properly manufactured and recognized legally, Changaa maybe a major product. The government has been convinced that chang’aa is illegal, but perhaps it is time that we studied the chang’aa industry which basically is a whiskey industry, and transformed that technology to sugarcane, maize and wheat. This is what will make these industries grow. It will make ugali flour cheaper because instead of concentrating on maize seeds which is less than 1 percent of the maize cob, we concentrate on the main maize stalk so that the maize is a waste product. This .this is what all other countries have done but here in Kenya we burn the maize stalk and the maize cob hoping to get profit from the maize. This is a wrong strategy and wrong economy. The only way you can profit from cereals production is through biotechnology. The technology exists with our parents, grandparents but it has not been accepted into policy and thus is illegal to practice.
Do we have favorable policies for the use of biotechnology in Kenya?
No. the policies in use destroyed the maize, sugarcane and wheat sector and until all these are addressed, we cannot break even. But the technology existed ; our parents have stuck with it and that is why the government cannot kill it.
The second one is vaccines which is also a biotechnology. We are importing vaccines whether DNA or protein. This technology has been there and the only attempt we have made in that direction is through The Kenya Veterinary Vaccines Production Institute (KEVEVAPI). KEVEVAPI cannot cope with the demand., given that it is the only industry of its kind in East and Central Africa and it only services a section of the livestock industry.
Without vaccination, the chicken and the livestock will be dead. Interestingly, people do use crude methods of vaccination , including taking a dead chicken, isolating the intestines, heat it and then taking the pus and injecting the other chickens. This vaccination sems to work albeit it’s an informal vaccination which is widely practiced but, in the process, because it is so crude there is the possibility of contaminating the other chickens and some die. Instead of the government agencies, facilitating these initiatives, as crude as they are, they resort to enacting legislation on the handling of these microorganisms, and a lot of restrictions based on biosafety, thus rendering people’s initiatives a crime. This kind of legislation then cannot help the sector.
What the government needs to do is to come up with standards and procedures, train people who can vaccinate livestock in communities, license them and create a fund which can make these people comply with the regulation and standards leading to the evolvement of an industry. Later on , we can go the genetic or molecular biology way; using DNA or RNA. This will take a long time, it requires science, technology and engineering but in the meantime, we can use the traditional ways which the villagers are using and help them use the whole microorganism until the country is ready or the scientists are able and ready to take up the process.
The students we train are not able to accept that the villagers have adapted some home technologies, nor can they accept that what the villagers do can be safe. “It has been implanted in the students minds that what the villagers are doing is dangerous, however, if the villagers have not died, if their livestock has not died, would it not be better to use science to help villagers improve on technologies as opposed to condemning them through legislation.”
Legislation should help to improve not to condemn but “ our enemies” are financing the legislation against village appropriation of technology because they know that once you condemn the appropriation, then you can have a field day controlling the economy in the sugar and cereals and biology industry. We should not allow that to happen we should take charge of our economy both though legislation, financing, education and training.
What should be done to enhance safety in the use of biotechnology?
Safety cannot be carried out outside practice. You can only enhance safety if you know how dangerous the process can be. First there must be practice let the safety be built on and around practice. In chemical safety; there must be chemicals, in biological safety; there must be biology otherwise we might run the danger of putting bottlenecks ,the way they have done in the other industries. If we take the case of legislation, we can see how making legislation the first step in the development of the chang’aa industry has actually stifled that industry because we fail to understand that changaa is actually a whiskey, and in the same way that in the west, whiskey is brewed in homes, thus even the changaa that we brew in our homes should not be condemned. What happens in the west is that whiskey home brewing is provided for in legislation including safety measures and protections for the brewer and consumer. In the Kenyan case, we make sure that the home brewer and consumer are harassed through policemen, thus only spoiling the names and reputations of the brewers and consumers. In this way we tend be detracted from generating resources , and to police a sector that can be self-sufficient.
In what areas can Kenya apply biotechnology and reap optimal benefits for development?
Biotechnology can be applied to everything and everywhere, in Kenya, and reap optimal benefits for development. It is true that where you have use of chemicals you will have applications. The one area where there is the highest value from use of biotechnology is in the pharmaceutical industry because all antibiotics are biotechnological, they are made from bacterial and fungi.
Another area that we can gain from is in food technology . This area though is not so well developed, given that agriculture is the mainstay of our economy. However, in the last five years we have experienced a growth in the crop protection area , such that we now have local companies (though they have been bought by multinationals) producing crop protection and post-harvest solutions using biotech. This is an area that will grow exponentially in the next 10 years, and certainly is envisaged that “ the growth will grow through the roof”. It is an area that the country can invest in, it is not expensive but we will need legislation that will facilitate rather than stifle. The law on biosafety and biosecurity for instance, needs to be looked at to be facilitative because there is danger that in the same way they have killed the energy sector; they will do the same on fledging but promising industry sector such as the changaa one,by putting in place the wrong legislation. Wrong legislation can certainly lead to killing our industries and leaving the field wide for our opponents and competitors to take over the biology sector in the sector in our country.
Examples of biotechnologies that we need to invest in include: tissue culture which can be used to generate all planting materials, disease free materials such that instead of using seed we can use tissue culture matter. We do need to commercialize the tissue culture because right now we are only developing it at laboratory scale. Tissue culture is a skill that every student in biology needs to be trained in and it can never be exhausted.
Other areas we can invest in that are biotechnological are fisheries, crop protection solutions pharmaceutical industry, food science and technology, household goods and services. Most of the current post harvest solutions are biotechnological and there is huge scope for development of this area, but we have barely even scratched the surface. We need to invest in al these areas, because there is no limit to what biotechnology can do. However, our financial sector needs to be persuaded to invest in the biotechnology sector, and legislation must be enacted to favorable enable people invest in the sector , and the concomitant engineering to support the biotechnology must also be encouraged.
It is encouraging that in 2021, we launched the East African Bio Economy Strategy. All the investment especially international investment, will be focused on biotechnology or biosciences development for the next ten years. It is going to be the fastest growing sector with a lot of opportunities.
On its part, the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Science and Technology is developing and mainstreaming a pharmaceutical biosciences program which will bring together chemistry, biological sciences, health sciences and engineering to develop antibiotics and also develop crop protections solutions. All the technologies are regulated and this means that the social sciences must be brought on board because of ethical reasons and standards emanating from dealing with human beings. Biotechnology requires team work, and hither to, where science programs did not encourage team work, now that technology is an integral part of the faculty, then the faculty will comply, by developing teams with social scientists included.
Currently, the field of science is separate from that of engineering and this perhaps explains low uptake of the concept of technology. Going forward, the two fields must come together and because this might not happen voluntarily, the government has to push through incentives and a ‘big stick’ based on the understanding that science without engineering cannot develop any technology.