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The UN Food and Agriculture Organization will launch an online network this month to boost biotechnology research and policy development in Africa.

The Agricultural Biotechnology Network for Africa (ABNET) will encourage researchers, policymakers, farmers and the media to share information and discuss how biotechnology can improve agriculture.

Stanford Blade, director of research for development at the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, welcomes the move.

"We hope ABNET will enhance interactions among the African biotechnology community so that they can use new tools to overcome problems facing poor farmers across the continent," he told SciDev.Net.

The network will gather relevant information and host electronic discussions on its website. A key aim is to promote dialogue on policy issues such as biosafety and the conservation of genetic resources.

However, Tilahun Zeweldu, biotechnology advisor to Uganda's Agricultural Productivity Enhancement Programme, says the network will not make a difference unless there is heavy private sector involvement.

"We should capitalise on public-private partnerships for technology development and commercialisation," he says.

To encourage the private sector to get involved, Zeweldu says Africa needs regional clusters of biotechnology and business development parks, as well as a fund to support innovation.

ABNET will be launched in Nairobi, Kenya on 21 March. It will organise regional meetings, training courses and workshops to promote agricultural biotechnology, and improve farmers’ access to new technologies.

The African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum, an association with members in seven African nations, will manage the network.