Q&A: Rainer Fischer on EU-Africa collaboration for R&D

prof Rainer Fischer
Copyright: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

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  • African-EU partnerships could be strengthened under EU’s Horizon 2020
  • The partnerships focus on areas, such as health, agriculture and the environment
  • Key issues to address include creating innovations and tapping local knowledge

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Rainer Fischer, director of an R&D institution in Germany, speaks to SciDev.Net about Africa-EU partnerships.

Cooperation between researchers in Europe and their counterparts in Africa received major funding boost during the EU’s FP7 (Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development), which was implemented from 2007 to 2013.
With the EU’s Horizon 2020 replacing FP7 in 2014, stakeholders expect further research and development (R&D) cooperation between the two continents.
A European institution with interest in strengthening collaborations with Africa on scientific R&D is Germany-based Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology.

“The main point is that the Joint Africa-EU Strategy involves identified priorities that significantly impact on the daily lives of citizens of both continents.”

Rainer Fischer, Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology.

The institute’s senior executive director Rainer Fischer met key African leaders in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 18-19 May 2014, to explore opportunities to collaborate with Africa and to strengthen cooperation between the EU and Africa on scientific and technological research and development.  
Fischer tells SciDev.Net about important areas of interest for EU-Africa partnerships, some of the programmes currently attracting such collaborations, their significance and the challenges.
What are some of the areas you think Africa and the EU can pursue to strengthen cooperation on scientific and technological research for development?

Many areas of cooperation between Africa and the EU have been identified as part of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy adopted by the EU and African Union (AU) in 2007. This strategic partnership covers all aspects of socioeconomic development and is supported by wide-ranging projects on both continents, with significant funding under the EU Framework Programmes (now Horizon 2020) and the African Union Research Grant Programme. The priorities for Africa were established in earlier regional policies such as the Africa’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action and have been put into action by organisations such as the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

The Joint Africa-EU Strategy resolves to focus on eight cooperation areas defined in their first and second action plans.  The second was published last year and the most important area in the context we are discussing focuses on science, information society and space. It is an exciting time for African-EU partnerships given the fresh wave of funding opportunities under Horizon 2020, and the bulk of the projects focus on health, agriculture or food and the environment.  I see the major opportunities for further cooperation in these research areas.

What specific scientific programmes are currently being undertaken in collaboration across the two continents?

There are several overarching EU-funded programmes that promote the development of bilateral collaborative projects including CAAST-Net Plus — a network which promotes and provides guidance for bi-regional cooperation in science and technology between Europe and Africa — and ERAfrica, which aims to establish an African model of the successful European Research Area Network. ERAfrica in March 2014 selected 17 major projects out of 124 proposals for funding. The projects involve scientists from many European and African nations, and cover areas such as health, agriculture, environment and renewable energy. The projects are generally funded for a period of three to five years although longer-term projects are also available. On the African side, joint projects such as the Africa Biosciences Initiative are often funded by the NEPAD. There is also the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership, which oversees projects that develop new diagnostics, vaccines and therapies in the areas of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria by supporting late-stage clinical trials in Sub-Saharan Africa.  

How do these programmes translate into tangible benefits for the ordinary people in Africa?

The main point is that the Joint Africa-EU Strategy involves identified priorities that significantly impact on the daily lives of citizens of both continents. For example, my institution is spearheading projects to develop new antibiotics that tackle superbugs and hospital-acquired infections — a growing problem on both continents. We are leading the development of novel malaria vaccines, which could improve the lives of Africans in endemic areas, but also European travellers.  We are leading the development of inexpensive production platforms for HIV microbicides, which could help to reduce the spread of the virus in Africa, where it is most prevalent, but can also be used for prophylaxis against the disease in Europe. We are developing better ways to produce and convert biomass so that the production of biofuels and green chemicals or materials will be more straightforward, a benefit for everyone.

How much is being spent on such programmes and who is funding them? 

It is not clear yet how much of the Horizon 2020 budget is allocated to EU-African cooperation because we have only just seen the first wave of funding. However, looking at current projects under FP7 provides a good example of the commitment shown by the EU. Under FP7, African participants received more than €178 million, approximately €9 million of which sponsored fellowships for African researchers. 

“The greatest significance of EU-Africa science collaboration is the ability to bring together complementary skills and expertise, technology platforms and the passion to discover and innovate, and turn these to the development of applications that will benefit ordinary citizens in Africa and society as a whole.”
Rainer Fischer, Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology.

What research projects are you engaged in with Africa, including projects tackling malaria, HIV, rabies and tuberculosis?

We have several projects running which involve African partners or provide benefits that can be immediately deployed in Africa. Our flagship malaria programme is developing new malaria vaccines and other medicines that can prevent the occurrence of the disease. We are focusing on novel production platforms that can deliver large amounts of biological chemicals at a much lower cost than traditional production in mammalian cells. Here we are collaborating with an extensive network of clinical trial partners in Africa. Our Pharma-Planta project is developing prophylactics against HIV and rabies, a novel production platform that can be readily deployed in Africa. This project is also the first production platform based on whole plants to receive regulatory clearance in Europe. In this project we are aiming to assemble a portable processing facility which means that pharmaceuticals can be grown and purified ‘in the region for the region’ without heavy investment in infrastructure.

While in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, you had discussions with some AU Commission and the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme leaders. What were the specifics, especially on research and innovations?

Most of the discussions focused on how we could roll out our current programmes to fulfil the aspirations of the 4th EU-Africa Summit, which took place in Brussels, Belgium, in April this year. We discussed investing in research, science, technology and innovation to promote the sustainable development of societies and the establishment of strategic partnerships. Therefore, we discussed our projects tackling malaria, HIV, rabies and (in the future) tuberculosis focusing on strategies to deploy any novel vaccines, neutralising antibodies and diagnostics arising from these projects, and perhaps more importantly the enabling technologies that can be used to produce them. There was considerable excitement about our plant-based production platform because these are ideas for producing pharmaceuticals locally. The plants can be shipped as seeds and grown locally so that medicines can be provided in Africa with no need for a distribution network or cold chain. They are not used as food so there will be no contamination of food stocks. They grow well in tropical regions and are widely used in the developing world so the agricultural infrastructure and practices are already in place. We discussed the progress in current Fraunhofer programmes that are developing vaccines and prophylactics and considered ways to accelerate this progress through some of the joint Africa-EU funding schemes I mentioned earlier. Finally, we looked at some additional Fraunhofer projects that could be used to improve the economic outlook in Africa, such as vertical farming to provide food in larger cities, dandelions as a source of latex and rubber, and our emerging metabolic engineering programme involving bacteria which can convert waste products from power stations into fuels and fine chemicals.

What would you consider as issues EU-Africa science collaboration face in Africa and the overall significance of such cooperation?

One of the key issues we face is that Africa has many talented researchers with a passion to address the grand challenges affecting the continent — disease, hunger, poverty, malnutrition, unsustainable resources, and threats to agriculture, water management and energy conservation. But these scientists often do not get the opportunity to develop innovative solutions. Furthermore, Africa has immense biodiversity and indigenous knowledge from natural healers. Unfortunately this know-how has only been exploited to a very limited degree. In Europe, we have technologies, know-how and infrastructures that could provide enormous benefits if correctly targeted. Therefore, I think the greatest significance of EU-Africa science collaboration is the ability to bring together complementary skills and expertise, technology platforms and the passion to discover and innovate, and turn these to the development of applications that will benefit ordinary citizens in Africa and society as a whole. 

Q&As are edited for length and clarity.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.