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Issue 1, September 2014

PUB - Public Understanding of Biotechnology
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Bio-economy Strategy: The new Bio-economy Strategy will support innovation in health, agriculture and industry. Image source: Department of Science and Technology

South Africa's new gold rush

Gold has been at the heart of South Africa’s economy since the late 1880s, and prospects are on the rise again.

But this time, there’s a new kind of gold to be found here. It lies waiting, within our remarkable biodiversity and in the knowledge systems of our indigenous peoples.

Think food security. Think therapies and diagnostics for diseases. Think environmentally-friendly industrial processes. And think clean energy.

We could potentially create all of this, by understanding and applying biological processes in the development of novel technologies. We have a biotechnology goldmine waiting to be explored, with riches that, if unearthed, could support a new bio-economy.
The Bio-economy Strategy is launched

In January this year, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) unveiled its new Bio-economy Strategy (BES), which aims to encourage the development of biotechnologies in South Africa.

Speaking at the official launch event at the time, former Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom, said the Department is confident the BES will boost research and investment in the biosciences, leading to technologies that will address the needs of the country and its people.

He explained that government departments and research institutions will work together with agriculture, health and industrial sectors, so that every link in the innovation chain is covered, from basic research, all the way through to product commercialisation.

Out with the old

Back in 2001, a Biotechnology Strategy that emphasised the commercialisation of technologies that were already close to market was implemented. It was limited in that it did not address innovation at all levels, and funding was mainly allocated to health and agriculture, not industry.

However, over R1 billion was spent on research and development, incubating companies, and establishing various government-run platforms.
Through that strategy, a number of successes came about, including the establishment of 14 technology platforms, the creation of 940 jobs, the awarding of 493 bursaries and the creation of 221 products.
What is a

The term “Bio-economy” refers to economic activities that stem from bio-innovations.

This includes any activity that makes use of biological resources, materials or processes in order to generate sustainable economic, social and environmental development.

For an effective bio-economy to flourish, every step in the innovation process must be promoted and coordinated, from a first idea, to research and development, to product development, and finally to manufacturing and commercialisation.

South Africa's New Bio-Economy (Infographic)

Image by ScienceLink for The Public Understanding of Biotechnology programme (
In with the new

The new BES is set to build on those successes, having been shaped by the Ten-Year Innovation Plan of 2008, the DST’s Human Capital Development for Research and Innovation Strategy, and the recently compiled National Development Plan.

Dr Maneshree Jugmohan-Naidu, Director for Biotechnology at the DST, said the BES defines a new paradigm for the future of bio-innovation in South Africa. “Not only is it supporting the generation of new knowledge products and services, but it provides a compelling argument for all role players to pool their resources in order to meet the country’s development goals.”

As such, a key part of the strategy will be identifying biotechnology gaps and opportunities in agriculture, health and industry.

The vision

The DST wants South Africa’s bio-economy to become a significant contributor to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2030.

Several factors have been identified as essential in realising this vision, including a government-wide commitment to the BES, human capital development, and improved structures and infrastructures to support research, development and innovation (RDI).

The BES will be implemented to address these factors over the next five years. This means we can expect the first signs of a vibrant and profitable bio-economy very soon.

One of the first things that will need to be strengthened is basic education in maths and science, to prepare the next generation of scientists. This is in light of evidence from countries such as Brazil, Cuba and India that suggests appropriately skilled citizens are absolutely critical for a functional bio-economy.

BES will also see the establishment of a R2 billion Bio-Innovation Venture Capital Fund as a public-private partnership. The idea behind it is to increase funding for, as well as local and foreign private investment into, biotechnology RDI and the fields that support it, like bioinformatics, systems biology and intellectual property management.

For more details on the Bio-economy Strategy, the full document can be read here.

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Department of Science and Technology & NRF SAASTA The PUB Programme is an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and is implemented by SAASTA. The mandate of PUB is to promote a clear, balanced understanding of the potential of biotechnology and to ensure broad public awareness, dialogue and debate about biotechnology and its current and potential applications. For more information visit or contact, Tel: 012 392 9300 or Fax: 012 320 7803.

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The PUB newsletter is an initiative of the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) programme.
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NRF | SAASTA Department of Science and Technology