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[CAPE TOWN] A biosafety network has received US$10 million to pursue its mission of helping African countries make informed choices about biotechnology.

Bill Gates announced the US$10.4 million grant for the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) during the World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony today (15 October) in Des Moines, United States.

The funds form part of the foundation's US$120 million funding package for agriculture.

The grant will enable ABNE to help African countries make informed decisions about delicate issues such as the growing of genetically modified crops. Among other initiatives, the network will organise workshops, offer short courses in biosafety and prepare policy briefs. The secretariat is being established in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

At the ceremony, Gates said the African biotechnology debate was "endangered by an ideological wedge" between those who support it and those who do not. He added that this "false choice" was blocking important scientific advances.

The biosafety network is a joint project between the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the US-based Michigan State University (MSU). It received a US$1.5 million one-year planning grant from the foundation last year and already has a web portal.

MSU will help train ABNE staff and provide up-to-date science-based information on biotechnology regulation but more than three-quarters of the grant will be spent in Africa, MSU staff told SciDev.Net.

Diran Makinde, ABNE's director, explains that the network aims to address a recommendation for pan-African policymakers to "build further capacity in biotechnology regulation". This call was made in a 2007 report by the High-Level African Panel on Modern Biotechnology.

At least nine African countries have approved biosafety protocols since the report was published, says Alex Owusu-Biney, regional biosafety coordinator for Africa at the UN Environment Programme.

Owusu-Biney adds that it is important for biosafety capacity building to move forward "irrespective of the underlying philosophy or position on genetically modified organisms".

Africa still has a long way to go in its development of biosafety protocols,says Julius Mugwagwa, a research fellow from the Innogen Genomics Network in the United Kingdom, who specialises in technology regulation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

"Most countries still do not have meaningful policy processes," he told SciDev.Net. "Innovating around this reality will have to be one of the tasks for this [initiative] if its impact is to take root."

Other beneficiaries of the Gates Foundation's grant round include the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, which has received US$18 million to help small-hold farmers in dry areas of Africa increase their yields of sorghum and millet.

The International Potato Center has been awarded US$21 million to produce high-yielding, stress-tolerant varieties of sweet potato.