Monday, March 5, 2018
Creating High Value Biotech Enterprises in Ghana
Biotech industries cut across a wide range of activities that involve the use of living organisms to make products. These range from the traditional fermentation processes used making in pito and dough, to the high tech and high value biologics and drug molecules. Ghana is in the prime location of the world and it’s also at the prime time to launch a major push for the creation of at least ten big biotech companies. These companies in 10-20 years will grow and generate revenue that will exceed that of petroleum, gold and diamond combined. And Biotech industries typically have minimal impact on the environment, a case of low value inputs and extremely high value outputs.
Ghana currently does not have any biotech company worth mentioning, except the beer brewing industries, which deal in medium value bulk products. These types of products are usually meant to serve the local economy since it does not stand to economic reason to export them to distant countries in large volumes. To get biotech business started we can look at products we import most, such as insulin and glucometers and dare to create one company that can produce the same at competitive prices. The patents covering these products have already expired and so Ghana can take advantage of this and cut down imports. This will save on foreign exchange losses for the country and also the technology platform that is created could be leveraged to make other specialist products that are discovered in Ghana for the global market.
The current lack of biotech companies in Ghana is due to lack of leadership from all three players, the government, academia and industry. We have had 60 years of science education in Ghana and it is time for researchers in the institutions of higher learning to realize the power of their ideas and seek to put them to work to benefit the larger society. This time, we should not develop ideas and hope some business person will show interest. We should take the initiative right to the top. It’s time to embrace integrated innovation as the way of creating wealth for our nation. Our talent is useless if we have to compete with the national budget for small scale funding of our research work. And continue to complain about the persistent lack of funding from Government. There is the need to change the mindset from primarily teaching with some research to research, enterprise creation with some teaching. Otherwise, the level of training we provide will continue to be low. And the students will walk away from their fields of study right after training to secure any job they can find, and the vicious cycle will continue to repeat itself.
The other reasons why the biotech sector has not blossomed in Ghana is also due to the lack of critical capacity, as the departments of biochemistry and biotechnology in the country have for a long time been training only small numbers of students many of who do not stay in the field. This situation has changed dramatically; since 2013 my department at the University of Ghana has recruited and is training 50 PhD students, due to the World Bank’s African centers of excellence initiative. This kind of research capacity changes everything that held us back and put us at the cusp of a major launch forward in the Biotech sector. The call for the establishment of about 10 high value biotech companies in Ghana is timely and far-sighted. This will lift up the country in a powerful way, as we already have the prime location for Biotech processing with 30oC in temperature all year around and many of the organisms are well adapted to our region of the world.
A high value biotech company will take about 4-5 years to transition from the laboratory scale to industrial scale and so it may not directly fit into the one-district-one factory initiative, due to the political nature of the programme, which seeks quicker turnaround times in industrial developments. However, the creation of the high value biotech enterprises should be launched as a follow up to the one-district-one-factory for the medium to the long term. We need to have the strategic patience needed to develop a really authentic and competent enterprises that are built to last. My recommendation to the implementers of the one-district-one-factory initiative is that they should endeavor to create or support the creation of one high value biotech enterprise for every ten district factories that are established. Many of these factories will need these biotech companies for their long-term sustainability.
A high value Biotech company is more profitable than gold and petroleum producing companies on the basis return on investment and the size of their operations. The products they make are typically low volume and high value and can easily go global. This will serve the nation well by harnessing the strengths of many local district factories to create globally competitive products. A case in point is the Ayensu starch whereby a high value biotech could procure all of its outputs to manufacture medicinal products such as biologics for the global market. That guaranteed market will ensure Ayensu Starch grows more cassava through its out-grower schemes creating more linkages for the economy to expand. A biotech company established by Prof. Leroy Hood in 1980 in USA has grown to achieve a market value of 129 billion USD and 29 Billion USD net worth. These enterprises can change the fortunes of this country something the mining and extractive industries have failed to do.
We need to be strategically deliberate with the model of the biotech industry we develop in Ghana and make sure the technical construction is 70-80% locally done. There is no need to rush and spend huge amounts of money to acquire expensive industrial tools from abroad only for it to breakdown and derail the creation of industries. We need to establish other allied industries such as tool making companies right from the planning stage to ensure that a local, sustainable and vertically integrated Biotech sector is achieved. We need to also prioritize these high value biotech enterprises to support the creation of other vertically integrated manufacturing systems in Ghana for the long-term. These strategic approaches would generate numerous jobs for the Ghanaian economy. The policy of the establishment of technology parks across the country can also come in handy. It can provide entrepreneurs with places to assemble their teams for training and piloting their technology in the development phase while their industrial estates are built. Let’s commit to this venture and the nation’s future will be great.
Patrick Kobina Arthur (PhD),
Head of Training and Research,
West Africa Centre for Cell Biology
of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP)