Two decades after Kenya lost valuable enzymes from lakes in the Rift Valley to unscrupulous researchers, who sold the material to companies for manufacture of chemicals, the government has initiated a project that will ensure the proceeds of the sale of harvested enzymes benefit local communities.
Experts from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), local universities and German chemical company BASF will come up with a plan for isolating the enzymes.
Once the industrially beneficial micro-organisms have been isolated from the lakes, they will be cloned and used in the manufacture of bio-pesticides and chemicals used in the cotton industry and for other industrial purposes, said KWS corporate communication manager Paul Udoto.
The project comes ten years after The EastAfrican reported that the country had been robbed of its miniscule wildlife resources by researchers who later sold the material to multinationals, leading to the development of industrial products worth billions of dollars.
This had happened in the 1990s when local and foreign researchers took extremophiles (or minute enzymes capable of surviving in extreme conditions) from Lake Bogoria and other soda lakes found along the Rift Valley and later sold the material to Genencor BV Company and Protor & Gamble.
The two companies cloned the organisms for use in the manufacture of chemicals that were used globally as detergents and in “stone-washing” denimjeans to give them the faded look that was considered “chic” globally.
By the time The EastAfricanpublished the story, the material had been generating between $3 billion and $4 billion annually for the two companies.
Scheduled to take four years, the project will see Moi University, the University of Nairobi, JKUAT, Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (Kirdi) and the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) join hands with KWS and BASF in the research.
The institutions are expected to learn from BASF’s expertise in how to access, use and share genetic resources within the framework of the Nagoya Protocol, which provides a framework for how natural resources should be shared between users and providers.
The protocol, negotiated in Nagoya, Japan, came into force on October 12, this year with 54 parties, including Kenya, as signatories.
The project is also expected to come up with a law on how the revenue from the products will be shared between the partners and the local communities.
This could see provisions on benefit sharing and bioprospecting that are now part of the Environmental Management & Co-ordination Act of 1999 and the Wildlife (Conservation & Management) Act of 2013 brought under one statute.
A Natural Resources Benefit Sharing Bill that provides a mechanism of sharing benefits accruing from such resources is under discussion by the Senate.
The involvement of BASF as an industrial partner was one of the conditions placed on Kenya and nine other countries — Argentina, Bhutan, Cameroon, Cook Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Gabon and Panama — that applied to pioneer the programme under the Nagoya Protocol.
“When we applied for the fund, we were expected to get an industrial partner as proof that the project will lead to the development and manufacture of a product that will get to the market” said Kavaka Mukonyi, a bioprospecting expert from KWS at a meeting held last week in Nakuru, to discuss modalities of establishing a microbial technology industry in the country.