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Monday, February 14, 2011

Stagnant technologies dead in Africa Labs

By Esther Nakkazi

A new herbal malaria medicine; a fuel-free incinerator for media waste in rural areas; a quick, cheap dipstick diagnostic test for schistosoma - a parasitic disease that affects more than 50 percent of people in Africa, are some of the products that could be effective against local problems and illnesses.

But all these products referred to as ‘stagnant technologies’ with the potential to save many lives, are languishing in Africa’s laboratories due to a lack of commercialization and marketing experience.

25 such products were identified languishing in health research institutions in Africa, 16 involved traditional plant products while the rest were new drug molecules, diagnostics, vaccines and medical devices.

"If Africans are to prevail over diseases they must unleash the formidable talents of their own scientists and entrepreneurs because sustainable solutions to Africa's health problems rest with the home team,” said Peter Singer the director McLaughlin-Rotman Centre (MRC) for Global Health in Canada.

Singer warns that many Africans would die if they wait on scientists from elsewhere to invent and market the health products like drugs, vaccines, diagnostics Africa needs.

Indeed, the homegrown science solutions and approved by the World Health Organisations (WHO) are decaying in Africa labs.

For instance researchers at Uganda’s Makerere University developed an easy-to-use, cheap, WHO-approved portable medical-waste incinerator.

Now idle at the campus for years, the incinerator could solve the problem of hospital waste management in rural areas, especially during programmes like mass polio immunization.

The uniqueness of the incinerator is that it uses no fuel other than the medical waste and achieves temperatures of 800 degrees C.

In Kenya, a product called Sunguprot from the plant Tylosema Fassoglensis, whose developers’ claim it can help manage HIV symptoms lies at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).

Research advancing the product stopped due to lack of advanced scientific equipment to isolate compounds and funding to carry out clinical trials that have enabled further development and validation.

Meanwhile, at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, researchers have patented human odors that effectively repel mosquitoes.

Imagine walking around with an odor that just repels mosquitoes. Maybe it would eliminate malaria from east Africa instantly. But this too needs further research, now pending negotiations with a multinational company.

These efforts could be complemented by an herbal, anti-malarial medicine, Nibima, from a traditional plant Cryptolepis sanguinolenta, under development at the Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicines in Ghana.

"Clearly, many Africans have the needed talent and know-how. However, the seeds of their efforts need careful nurturing by both donors and African governments at all levels,” said Ken Simiyu a researcher with MRC.

According to Simuyu, all that is required are creative institutions and coherent policies that reduce risk, build on local strengths, and promote the effective use of local health research.

Studies show that with the right partners and incentives along with support from governments at home, Africans have the scientific creativity and entrepreneurial talent to improve local health and prosper at the same time.

For instance in Tanzania, local funding, economies of scale, technology transfer, and partnerships all helped the A to Z Textile Company become one of the world's largest producers of long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets, cost-effectively producing tens of millions of nets.

A to Z Textile Company succeeded despite regulatory issues, procurement rules, and other barriers.

And, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), for example, constructed a full-scale manufacturing facility to produce HIV and Hepatitis B diagnostic kits.

Although the KEMRI factory idled for sometime because the government stopped purchasing the products, the institute overcame them through diversification, partnerships and changes in culture.

It diversified its product line to include a disinfectant and modified the rapid HIV and Hepatitis B test kits. It also adopted an open innovation business model, which linked it with investors, research partnerships, licensing opportunities, and revenue from contract manufacturing.

In the long term it instituted a marketing division, developed an institutional IP policy, and trained its scientists on innovation management.

By that KEMRI has shown how research institutes in Africa can turn science into health solutions for local health problems, thus reducing Africa's health burden.

These research papers funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Genome Canada were published (with open public access) mid last month and produced by Canada's McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health.

They draw on experiences of authorities, researchers and entrepreneurs in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Madagascar, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, and Uganda.

While some are languishing, other products may save millions of African lives one day and also expand into global markets but only if they cease being stagnant technologies.


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NB ( I wrote this article months ago as soon as we had a press briefing but my editor did not publish it. The fate of science stories oh!)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Uganda's oil adequate for the East African region for the next 30 years

By Esther Nakkazi

Ranking Uganda among the 50 peak producers of oil in the world and top 10 in Africa could be moments away, pointing towards ‘prosperity’ for Uganda and the entire East African region.

So far, 2.5 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves have been confirmed in a quarter of the Albertine Graben, and are projected to reach 5 billion, more than adequately providing for the East African states’ energy and fuel supplies for the next 30 years says the ministry of Energy.

Studies say that the reserves estimated at 700 million barrels and worth 50 billion, equate to two-thirds of the $78 billion, a total annual gross domestic product of the combined EAC states.

With this income, Uganda has a chance to lift its 33 million people out of poverty and to directly finance its development for sectors like health, education, agriculture and roads as well as offer employment to populations in the neighbouring east African member states.

Uganda also has a chance to secure and lower the cost supply of crude and petroleum products in region, transforming the whole EAC economy.

Now, the Uganda oil reserves are said to surpass the region’s needs, so countries in the region stand to gain from exports, but that calls for integration of infrastructure-rail, road, pipeline- to reduce operational costs to allow for competition with middle-east oil producers.

At the exploration stage, now, and moving to development the country will need successful and collaborative partnerships both in the EAC region and internationally.

The partnerships, will enable other East African community member states to develop their own oil and gas sectors as most of them are already at the exploration stage.

In Rwanda, oil exploration is taking place in the Kivu Graben; Kenya has four sedimentary basins in the Rift Valley, Lamu, Anza and Mandera that are under exploration.
While, the Songo Songo and the Manzi bay gas fields in Tanzania are also with confirmed hydrocarbon potential.

All these initiatives across the region will lead to growth and expansion of the oil sectors, and require new technologies, industries and skilled manpower.

Also key to the growth of the oil sector is a solid, reliable supply chain that requires many local suppliers of all sorts of services and equipment. This could lead to growth of the small-scale industries in the region and grow employment opportunities.

Already, the type of crude, low skilled labor force in the oil sector and the preference for a mini-refinery at home puts Uganda in a precarious position that calls for big investment.

Experts say the crude is a sweet, waxy and heavy crude that solidifies at room temperature and requires a long development cycle and heated transportation.

And, the multiplicity of 15 oilfields spread over 160 kilometers, as well as a home and regional refinery present an opportunity to develop both the Uganda and regional transport sector.

So far there are oil and gas pipelines laid between Dar es Salaam, Tanga and Mombasa, and the extension of the Mombasa to Kampala oil pipeline to Kigali and Bujumbura is underway.

Although some of the services and goods required in the oil industry are very specialised, many small companies in the region will benefit from offering services like construction, trucking, catering, waste management, security, transport and accommodation.

Man power is also required to provide services such as environment consultants, fabrication, maintenance, man power management services, banking- are services that need to be fully developed.

And, Uganda alone does not have the capacity and skilled manpower to fill these jobs. For instance, Oil companies employ up to 300 Ugandans on a seismic survey and about 100 Ugandans on a drilling project but mainly to do casual work because of lack of the skilled expertise in the country.

However, some have suggested that all will not be rosy, oil and gas reserves for Uganda could undermine other sectors in the economy and damage the environment. But all that stands to be tested with the Uganda Oil Industry, the first to develop in the region.


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Welcome to Ghana!

By Esther Nakkazi

I usually want to describe myself as a food explorer, because I try to eat only local foods in my travels. Often times when I travel, I stick to the local foods, which sometimes awes my Ugandan colleagues.

In Nigeria it was Mr. Snail that I ate and was scorned at by fellow Ugandans. I ate it slowly, because I was treading on new territory, and managed to swallow at least five chews. It was not bad, tasted like rubber. Totally overrated by the Nigerians.

While other Ugandans ate rice and chicken (with a lot of pepper), which was what was familiar to taste, I stuck to Egusi soup, Eba, Amala and vegetable. A food explorer indeed!

Now my trip to Ghana in late January exposed me to a lot of new food dishes. First some background. In Ghana, there is no petting-dogs and cats are no pets. They are for the cooking pot. Skinned squirrels and grass cutters are a common sight on the roadside.

Infact, as I watched cats survive alongside humans in one of the rural communities, I realized they were no friends. In the Obuasi community, the cats could not curl around people as they normally do. As one passed by me, I tried to touch it, being friendly really, but it sprinted away in fright, probably thinking I wanted it for dinner. 

But even I, the 'food explorer', could not eat or even think about it. For goodness sake, my Grandma keeps pets (cats) and I would like to keep a dog sometime.

One Ghanaian man, while describing his cat eating meal, said they prepared a head exclusively for the young men including him, at some bride introduction ceremony, and he immensely enjoyed eating it. I touched my stomach. But who I am, to judge them, in Uganda we eat grasshoppers- a type of locust, unlike anywhere in Africa. (Or nowhere I have heard of).

The eating of cats, dogs and squirrels does not mean that Ghana is not a food basket. I have never seen as much food as I saw in Ghana both in quantities, variety and richness of a meal.

Take for instance nuts- there are cocoa nuts, kola nuts, cashew nuts and tiger nuts (which are meant to make men tigers in bed). To show that it is in plenty, often times people eat in what I can describe as a calabash (big dish made of clay). In here, the proportions are big and a variety. 

You could mix beef, tuna fish and chicken plus fufu or banku (hope this is the right spelling) in one meal. This comes with a lot of rich, heavy soup of course with pepper and often times reddish in colour because of a mixture of spices and too much palm oil.

Ghana also is one of the richest African countries I visited with many natural resources, Gold, everlasting salt mines and most recently oil. If well exploited, and revenues managed properly, it could be a middle income country. Plus the good political regimes, democracy, not so bad roads- with side walkways- I just could be born in Ghana.

Ghana also has a lot of similarities to Uganda, which has just discovered oil.

Ghanaians are also very good Christians, just like Ugandans, only I guess they are more tolerant to divergent views.

So my trip from Ghana also exposed me to another situation that could have turned fatal, had not the pilot acted quickly. First of all, I was allocated a back seat, near the toilet, which I did not like at all.

But on a full plane you got not much choice. So we were engaged in our usual chat chat when we realized that the plane was actually not gaining altitude. In minutes, we were heading back for the airport for an emergency landing.

Why? The cabin did not have enough pressure. As soon as the captain announced it, I felt like yes I was not breathing properly. A colleague described the situation in as bad.

When there is low pressure in the cabin, there is limited oxygen; the ears get affected most because they start hurting. Eventually, the plane had to fly at low altitude to avoid the high pressure high up. And this was the second time I was in a Kenya Airways plane with a serious problem. 

But I loved Ghana!