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[ABUJA] The Nigerian government is about to sign an agreement with UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) for an international biotechnology centre that should begin operations in 2012.

Food safety, tropical disease research and the conservation of bioresources are all areas that it is hoped the centre will strengthen, not just in Nigeria but, through collaborations and training, across the whole of Africa.

The International Centre for Biotechnology, whose buildings are already near completion, is to be hosted by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and will be a Category 2 institution, under the auspices of UNESCO.

Its facilities will enable scientists to carry out advanced biotechnology research and collaborate internationally. Amongst several planned postgraduate programmes will be an international industry- and policy-oriented masters degree in biotechnology, aimed at government policymakers.

UNESCO's executive board approved the establishment of the centre earlier this year (13–19 May). A formal agreement should be signed at the·36th session of the General Conference of UNESCO, which begins next month (25 October−10 November).

UNESCO has not provided funding for the centre, but sees its role as a catalyst for international cooperation and capacity-building. It will have a representative on the centre's governing board.

The Nigerian government is funding the centre, a commitment that includes US$2 million a year to cover research and training programmes, as well as providing office space, equipment and facilities.

"Sub-Saharan African countries still lag in their capability to exploit biotechnology processes," Lucy Hoareau, a programme specialist at UNESCO's basic and engineering sciences division, told SciDev.Net. "Public and private sector funding is low, and there is a lack of high quality infrastructure to support advanced research and training in biotechnology."

"The brain drain from the region is worsening the situation."

She said the centre will also get involved in 'banking' biological material and developing rapid methods for screening indigenous medicinal plants, as well as techniques for the mass propagation of plant species, in vitro culture techniques and the latest food production and processing methods.

The centre could become a regional asset for West African biosciences, according to Marcel Nwalozie, director of the West African Biosciences Network, based in Senegal.

"Being established within a university gives this centre a special mandate in the training of students and practitioners in advanced biotech," he said.

And Bartho Okolo, vice-chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, said: "The centre will play a big role in producing the next generation of biotechnology specialists who would apply cutting-edge technologies to tackle the real problems that constrain our development as a continent".

Link to UNESCO's feasibility study  [65kB]