Kenya signs deal to exploit microbial goldmine

Enzymes could be worth a fortune for Kenya Copyright: Wikimedia

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[NAIROBI] Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has entered a five-year biotechnology research partnership with a Danish company to use enzymes with potential industrial applications, especially in biofuels and medicine.

KWS signed a memorandum of understanding with Novozymes last week (28 June), giving the firm rights to exploit, for commercial use, the rich microbial biodiversity within KWS controlled areas.

Under the agreement, KWS will receive royalties from the sales of any products developed from its microorganisms. KWS will also collaborate with Novozymes in enzyme research and development and patenting.

Novozymes will also assist Kenya through technology transfer, institutional capacity building and training of Kenyan students in bioprospecting — the process of developing genetic resources from plants, animals and microorganisms into marketable goods. One postgraduate student has already been identified to start training in taxonomy, and isolation and identification of microorganisms.

The company has also agreed to build a special laboratory at the KWS headquarters in Nairobi, and provide materials for enzyme screening as well as cover researchers’ travel costs.

Steen Riisgaard, Novozymes’ chief executive, said in a press release that the company was targeting Kenya because of its wealth of biodiversity, and that it was happy to be giving something to Kenya in return.

KWS director Julius Kipng’etich told SciDev.Net that Kenya’s microbial diversity is largely unexploited, and could greatly benefit the country.

"Tourism is low level income generation. We need to graduate to a higher level where biotechnology takes us. We have planted a seed that will take Kenya places," said Kipng’etich.

Novozymes has already developed an enzyme called ‘pulpzyme’ from bacteria in two lakes in Kenya’s Rift Valley province, for which KWS has received about US$9,000 in royalties and will continue to receive annual payments.

Pulpzyme reduces the amount of chlorine ― an environmental pollutant  ― needed to bleach wood pulp, thus improving the environmental sustainability of pulp and paper manufacturing. 

The agreement comes as KWS is embroiled in a ‘biopiracy’ case with US biotech company Genencor. KWS is claiming a share of profits from the sales of a detergent, whose active ingredients were sourced in Kenya (see Biopiracy row over Kenyan lake bacteria).