Sifelani Tsiko:The Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (SANBio), a research platform, has set aside US$35 million to support the renovation and upgrading of laboratories to promote research that addresses some of the most pressing problems facing the SADC region.
Interim SANBio Network manager, Ereck Chakauya, said this in Harare recently when he led a team from his organisation that visited key stakeholders in biosciences and their facilities and to assess human and infrastructure capacity in Zimbabwe.
The visit was also aimed to raise awareness of SANBio activities at the political and technical levels in the country.
Said Chakauya: “SANBio has allocated US$35 million for laboratory equipment and infrastructure. You need to develop a database of equipment in your laboratories so that you know who has what and how best this can be shared.
“We have access models for sharing laboratory equipment among research institutions. Please do not hesitate to apply for these funds. The money is there and what you need to do is to send us your proposal. The money will be allocated on a competitive basis.”
SANBio is a shared biosciences research, development and innovation platform for working collaboratively to address some of Southern Africa’s key biosciences issues in health, nutrition and health-related intervention areas such as agriculture and environment.
It was established in 2005 under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), as one of the five networks established under the African Biosciences Initiative (ABI), to cover the SADC region.
The platform provides access to world-class laboratories for African and international scientists conducting research on African biosciences challenges.
The network has 12 member states which include: Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, South Africa, Seychelles, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
During their visit to Zimbabwe, the delegation also met with officials in the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development.
Harare Institute of Technology official, Perkins Muredzi, welcomed the SANbio announcement saying it attested to the network’s commitment to improve laboratory infrastructure in Zimbabwe.
“We are delighted to hear that SANbio has in its budgets prioritised efforts to renovate and upgrade laboratory infrastructure in all our institutions,” he said.
“The onus is on us to draw up the country’s database of equipment and submit sound proposals to tap on this US$35 million allocation.”
Most research laboratories in Zimbabwe and in other SADC countries are in a sorry state owing largely to lack of funds and prioritisation.
Investments in laboratories are largely absent or inadequate at best in these countries resulting in rundown services and unreliable laboratory results.
“Infrastructure is a critical component of research,” said a University of Zimbabwe official.
“We cannot fulfil our research mandate without addressing laboratory infrastructure, our regulatory frameworks and our manpower needs.”
Most researchers told SANbio officials that obstacles to the scaling-up of research programmes included shortages of trained personnel required to deliver high – quality research results, broken laboratory management systems, lack of accessible and quality – assured laboratory services to support meaningful research in agriculture.
Limited resources, they also say, have hampered the provision of high – quality laboratory infrastructure capable of consistently churning out accurate test results.
“Lack of an overall vision of the critical role of the laboratory in the country is worrying,” said one research expert.
“We need laboratory equipment and resources, not mega money, but adequate funding to enable us to carry out research in agriculture, health and nutrition.”
UZ biochemist, Prof Idah Sithole-Niang, said it was critical for researchers to apply for small grants which allow for the conducting of meaningful research.
“We need to think seriously about securing small research grants,” she said. “These are possible to secure and can have a huge impact.”
A call was also made to SADC governments to invest in and develop laboratory infrastructures across the region to help address a myriad of problems facing the people.
This, they say, will allow for the modernisation laboratory infrastructure which is indispensable to the promotion of research, enabling testing, certification and innovative development of food products.
Others said there was need for SADC countries to explore ways of mobilising resources to improve laboratory infrastructure and training scientists in agricultural research, such as public-private partnerships.
Most labs in the SADC region are in a deplorable condition at a time when quality research services are need to address food insecurity, nutrition and growing cases of communicable and non-communicable diseases.
“Most of our laboratories are in a deplorable condition and we need urgent help to upgrade our labs,” said a participant to SANbio meeting which was held at the Harare Institute of Technology.
“We don’t have any systems in place to for the commissioning and retiring of laboratory equipment. Some of the equipment contains very dangerous substances and this endangers the lives of our researchers.”
Most analytical laboratory machines in the country’s research institutions are no longer functional and a few that are still operating have outlived the span given by the manufacturers.
Researchers say in some institutions atomic absorption Spectro photometer that detects heavy metals in food, soil, air, water and the high performance liquid chromatography that analyses food, water and color, have all broken down.
“Manufacturers normally gives these machines a life span of 10 years after which he stops manufacturing spare parts,” said a research expert.
“We are meant to service these machines annually but we haven’t been doing that. Most of these machines have broken down. How do we teach our students? This is catastrophic and we need urgent support to address some of these problems.”
He said it has become difficult to conduct test for DNA and detect food poisoning and expired drugs because of broken down machines.
“Our labs should be equipped with proper equipment, given trained personnel and regular maintenance,” the researcher said on condition anonymity.
The situation is alarming and something has to be done. If nothing is done this has severe implication on the training of young scientists as well as impinging negatively on the administration of justice which may require DNA tests.”
Most SADC governments are still struggling to secure funding to support the development of laboratory infrastructure to promote agricultural research that addresses food security challenges facing the continent.
Scientists say African governments must seriously consider investing laboratory infrastructure to promote research and ensure that the continent realises its ambition to become an agricultural research hub.
They say science funding must be at the heart of Africa’s economic strategy and foreign scientific investment must compliment whatever little investment is being done on the continent.
Embracing and investing in technology acquisition, development, adaptation and adoption for use by the farmers in Africa, they argue, is the only way to achieve agricultural development.
African farmers face numerous challenges in their quest to increase productivity and investing in laboratory infrastructure and food security-related issues can ensure the scaling up of research that responds effectively to some of their needs.
This, they also say, will also help African countries to qualify and certify the status food consumed on the continent.
The US$35 million SANbio laboratory fund facility is welcome to the science community which has been battling for years to secure adequate funding for renovating and upgrading laboratory infrastructure.
There is a global race and Africa needs to look at the global picture on science investment, one researcher remarked.
“This funding facility is absolutely imperative if the present sorry and deteriorating state of affairs of our laboratories, shortage of lab equipment and technicians is to be faced up realistically,” said a UZ researcher.