African students showcase low cost laboratory equipment’s at the SANBio LabHack

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Team Botswana of the Low cost PCR Machine

From the 11 – 13 of November 2018, the Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (SANBio) in collaboration with the University of Oxford held a LabHack event in Pretoria, South Africa. The main aim of the labhack was to give undergraduate students the frugal engineering opportunity to come up with prototypes of any laboratory equipment or machine that is used in bioscience laboratories. It is well known that laboratory equipment’s are very expensive and as Africa we depend on importing from developed countries. It is therefore of utmost importance to attract African youth towards the development of low cost, effective and efficient laboratory equipment to reduce the high costs incurred in science and research institution due to expensive equipment.

The labhack event was held at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and attracted 5 teams from three Southern African countries. Botswana with two teams, Zimbabwe with 2 teams and Namibia with a single team. Teams of three to four members were required to be made of individuals from different educational disciplines i.e life sciences, engineering and other disciplines. This was a deliberate move to ensure and foster collaboration across the disciplines as one of SANBio’s mandate is to ensure and capacitate collaboration and resource sharing amongst the member states. All teams were given a budget of R2000 for materials of their prototypes.

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Abed of Team Namibia explaining how their centrifuge works.

While the event itself was not really a competition as stressed by the SANBio Network Manager Dr Ereck Chakauya, at the end of the event all teams were awarded certificates of participation and consolation prizes. Then three teams were chosen for position 1 to 3 based on the prototypes design methodology, presentation, collaboration abilities and soundness of motivation for the prototype. Out of the five teams, A team of students from Namibia with their desktop centrifuge got position 1. The team was led by Loide Angula, a first-year law degree student from University of Namibia. Position 2 went to a Botswana team comprising of Keagile Bati, a Biotechnology student and Nkosinathi Joseph, a mechanical engineering student from the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) and Mooketsi Phori studying Network Security and Computer Forensics at Botho University. The team presented a low-cost thermocycler with some materials harvested from old computers. Another team working on a thermocycler was the Zimbabwean team which got position 3 and was led by Clifford Mutsave, an electronics engineering student of the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Bulawayo. Position 4 went to two teams; a Botswana with their Vortex mixer prototype and team Zimbabwe with their desktop centrifuge.

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Clifford Mutsave (left) and his fellow team Zimbabwe members

We may take such innovations and prototypes for guaranteed but this is a step towards developing Africa. We need to invest in such initiatives and projects with a collaborative effort so as to share knowledge and resources. Thanks to SANBio and the University of Oxford for pioneering such an initiative and encouraging youth to be involved in the development of Africa.

Finding African solutions to African problems!

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Polymerase Chain Reaction: Innovation that Revolutionized Molecular Biology

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A thermal cycler, components of the reaction mixture and reaction steps. (source: http://www.basised.com/phoenix/senior-projects/week-10-heads-then-tails/pcr-components_med/)

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) is a common technique used in molecular biology to make several copies of a specific DNA segment. A small amount of DNA can be amplified to make millions of copies of a specific DNA segment enabling genomic studies, recombination DNA technology  and molecular diagnostic research. It was invented by Kary Mullis in 1983 who latter won a Nobel prize in Chemistry for this innovative technique that not only revolutionized molecular studies but simplified such studies. The amplification of such DNA segment(s) occurs in a thermal cycler also known as a PCR machine.

To make copies of DNA using a thermal cycler, a reaction mixture is composed into a PCR reaction tube. The reaction mixture contains; a pair of primers that hybridize with the flanking sequences of the target, all the four deoxyribonucleoside triphosphates (dNTPs) and a heat stable DNA polymerase such as Taq polymerase, an enzyme originally isolated from the thermophilic bacterium Thermus aquaticus. Amplification of DNA then occurs through a cycle of the following three steps:

a. Denaturation: This step is where the DNA strand is unwind and separated by heating at 95 ‘C for 15 seconds.

b. Annealing or hybridization of primers: Here the reaction mixture is cooled to 54 ‘C and primers hybridize to the separated DNA strands.

c. Extension or elongation: At 72 ‘C, DNA polymerase enlongates both primers in the direction of the target sequence because DNA synthesis is the 5′ to 3’ directions.

After about 32 cycles of the above steps, million copies of the DNA segment of interest will have been made. Amplification of DNA by the use of PCR has many applications across the applied science industry. In medical diagnostics, PCR based tests are used for detection of mutations, infectious agents and suppressors. It is also widely used in forensics for paternity testing and DNA fingerprinting.

Bioprospecting of Medicinal Plants

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The use of plants and plant products as medicine dates to their exploration by the ancient Greeks. The knowledge of which plant is used for a certain disease was then passed from generation to generation through various means. Some were passed through folktales, direct sharing of knowledge by indigenous knowledge holders to their chosen children. It was in the recent centuries where proper documentation of medicinal plants began but even today nations still lack proper documentation systems for indigenous knowledge especially the herbal products.

The diversity of the kingdom Plantae has been explored for food, medicine, and other industrialization processes of great importance to humankind. Food and industrial use have received extensive scientific and technological scrutiny which resulted in creation of diverse products. However, with the medicinal use, scientific and technological exploration has not been intense until the last decades where antimicrobial resistance and pulling out of synthetic drugs from the market shelves due to dire side effects, and with the World Heath Organization (WHO) encouraging the systematic bio-prospecting of medicinal plants for their efficacy and toxicological profiles.

Plants with various medicinal properties have and are still used for treatment of various diseases especially in resource limited states. Traditional health practitioners usually prescribe a single plant extract or a concoction of different plants or different parts of the same plant.  Some plant extracts have synergistic effects and work better when combined with other plant extract. Traditional doctors and other indigenous knowledge holders use various plants for management and treatment of diseases like diabetes, heart diseases, diarrhea,  and other illnesses.

With advancement in science and technology, the exploration of herbal products for drug discovery has of recent intensified. For example, the widely prescribed medication for diabetes, Metformin is a drug discovered from the plant; Galega officinalis. Therefore, there is great potential for discovery of more drugs from the bio-prospecting of medicinal plants.

Cassia abbreviata: The Miracle tree of Botswana

Cassia abbreviata, commonly known as Monepenepe in Setswana is largely referred to as the miracle tree of Botswana. The plant is known for its wide use in traditional pharmacology. It’s use in management of various ailments has over the years been passed from generation to generation especially in the North Eastern part of Botswana where its abundance is enormous. Despite its multipurpose use, Monepenepe has not been properly documented and scientifically exploited until in the recent years. Even today, the plant has not been fully evaluated for its pharmacological activities.

The plant is not only found in Botswana but widely distributed across Southern Africa. Cassia abbreviata is characterized by brown bark and can grow up to 10 meters. It has long cylindrical dark brown hanging pods and yellow flowers. This medium sized tree belongs to the Caesalpiniceace family.

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The bark and roots extracts of C. abbreviata have important medicinal effects. A decoction of the bark is used to treat various ailments such as malaria, sugar diabetes, headache, bilharzia and diarrhea. The roots are also used for treatment of gonorrhea, syphilis, pneumonia and chest pains. pharmacological studies have proved the antidiabetic potential of both the roots and stem bark extract. The plant has also shown antiviral effects on HIV.  The extract is also used to treat black water fever.

References

Bati K, Kwape T.E and Chaturvedi P. Anti-Diabetic Effects of an Ethanol Extract of Cassia abbreviata Stem Bark on Diabetic Rats and Possible Mechanism of Its Action. Journal of Pharmacopuncture, 20(1), 2017.

Mojeremane W, Legwaila GM, Mogotsi KK and Tshwenyane SO. Monepenepe (Cassia abbreviata): A medicinal plant in Botswana. International Journal of Botany, 1(2), 2005.

Research and Development: A driving force towards transforming Botswana’s resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy.

Botswana, a landlocked country with a population of around only two million, is ranked to be one of the countries with growing economies. However, even to date the economy is still solely based on exports of minerals especially diamonds. Exportation of beef is also a big contributor to Botswana’s growing economy. Despite the fast-growing rate of Botswana’s economy, it has even today remained a resource-based economy with no or little added value to the raw materials exported to European countries. This has become a cause of concern as youth unemployment escalates while more jobs can be created by adding value to the raw materials that are exported at a very low-price value and the products made from them are bought back at a higher price.

How can Botswana transform her resource-based economy to a knowledge and innovation-based economy?

For Botswana to realize her dream of transforming the economy from resource based to knowledge and innovation led economy, she needs to prioritize Research and Development. There is need to ensure that government decisions and policies are influenced by research findings. In fact, research and development is the key to innovation and strategic transformation of any industry or economy. And, for research and development to progress, Botswana should increase the funding for research and even attract foreign investment in research and development that result in commercialization of products and services that can generate income and jobs in the country. Appreciating and recognizing researchers can also drive competitive innovations which ultimately can result in improved and efficient systems that generally improves the quality of life of Batswana.

One aspect Botswana can adopt with respect to research and development is bioprospecting of natural products obtained through the Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS). With well defined policies on the management of IKS and clear standards on cost benefit sharing and cooperation between IKS holders and the scientific research community, many products can be commercialized and even patented. Botswana is blessed with a diversity of plants of which many traditional medical practitioners have harnessed their medicinal properties and other uses of which their benefit can be amplified through research. Also, researcher in this system should be encouraged to champion the ‘Innovate or perish’ philosophy as opposed to the ‘Publish or perish’ dogma.

While research and development are key to transforming Botswana’s economy from resource based to knowledge and innovation-led, there is need to find and explore other measures that can hasten that transformation. Benchmarking from the success stories of other countries can provide guidelines for legislative policies that can govern research and development and innovation that will progressively build a knowledge and innovation led economy.

Agriculture Revolutionised

During my research for the Agritech ecosystem, I discovered a revolutionary method for farming called hydroponics. Farming without soil. A rather difficult concept to explain to many African farmers. How can you farm without soil? It’s not possible.

Agriculture has been the backbone of many African economies and the livelihood of many. But there’s also the issue of land and resources. This method however, promises to be cost-effective, easier, to improve yields and provide healthier produce. It’s not limited to just vegetables, which many have focused on, but it could fill the gaps facing Zimbabwe’s supply chain.

So I discovered 160 HydroFarm run by a Zimbabwean women and her daughter. I had a chat with her daughter, trying to better understand their business and here is their story:

Venensia Mukarati, the founder of 160 Hydro Farm, has always had a passion for farming and wanted a new method that could be easy to run and commercialise. After some research they stumbled upon Aquaponics and later discovered Hydroponics. Venensia first ran the idea past her family who, as family, were supportive but probably thought ‘there goes mum again’. Venensia says, “There is something addictive about planting a seed, watching it germinate and grow” and it was the only way to show them that the method worked. Her girls have since grown into farming. Together with her daughters, Rufaro and Tino, they have managed to turn a backyard hobby into 160 HydroFarm.

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She describes the journey as “thrilling”. They now have 3 running systems and are expanding in their backyard. Everyday is a new learning experience as well as an experiment. It started with only iceberg lettuce and they now have 5 lettuce varieties, herbs, tomatoes and coming soon, micro-greens. They have been supplying a few shops including Willowmead and some really supportive individuals who are in love with fresh greens. “Social media is an amazing platform. It has helped in getting our product out there.”

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The benefits of their products? Well.. Hydroponics provides the exact needs to the plants appropriately. This means that plants will grow faster and healthier as compared to a plant grown in the soil. More benefits:

Can grow plants all year round, both indoors and out;

Conserves water and plant nutrients are controlled;

More plants can be grown in a given area;

No weeding needed;

Soil borne pests are eliminated, leading to the reduced need for pesticide.

NFT Hydro Solutions supplied them with the first system that they set up. NFT has been a supportive investor to 160 HydroFarm and have supported them greatly every step of the way, which has made it easier for them. They are confident that one day they will have a financial investor, and a lot of people are interested in knowing what they are doing.

As a pioneer in Hydroponics in Zimbabwe, run by women, 160 HydroFarm has learnt that it is not a challenge to build up an idea. Women in farming need new innovative ideas and this project is heading in the right direction. It’s easy to set up and run. A great way for females that need their own project and income. 160 HydroFarm will be having training for females who want to learn how to do this. “Hopefully with Zimbabwe implementing this urban agricultural method we will definitely feed the 9 billion by 2050!”

“It’s safe to say 160 HydroFarm’s journey is only just beginning and we are ecstatic.”

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Hydroponics sounds AMAZING! No weeds? No pesticides? Organic and healthy! Why aren’t we all running to adopt hydroponic farming? It’s innovation in agriculture. Who would have thought we wouldn’t need soil to farm? I believe this is the step in the right direction and it’s a way to empower women. No tilling away at dry land in the sweltering heat. It’s revolutionary!

P.S. Support local.

Thank you to Tinoda Mukarati and her mum, Venensia, for allowing me the opportunity to share their story! And for the great photos! 🙂

Insects on our dinner plates: Food for the future!

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Crunchy, protein-packed worm tacos! – Image from https://www2.zagat.com/b/5-places-for-wacky-tacos-in-houston 

Entomophagy, defined as the human consumption of insects, has gained popularity and scientific attention across the world. This might be due to the need to reduce meat-based diets for health reasons or make protein rich diets for vegetarians. But it seems the main reason is to find food for the ever-growing human population. Insects have the potential to serve not only as food for people but as feed for livestock especially poultry and fish. With the growing demand for meat products, using insect-made animal feed could provide a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way of increasing animal production.

While the mention of insects in human nutrition may nauseate some people, the reality of having them on your dinner plate is nearer than one can perceive. Some populations have been eating insects for many years ago and also the context of eating insects is not foreign to many countries. Of recent, some countries have embarked on the commercial production and utilization of insects as food source. The recent investment of US$ 37 million by an insect farming company called Ynsect in France shows the potential movement towards entomophagy.  It is also believed that commercial and industrial insect farming is more cost-effective, energy-efficient and requires a relatively small land in comparison to livestock farming like cattle for beef production.

But why insects? Insects are said to be rich in proteins and low in fats hence good for health. The farming of insects is also regarded as environmental and ecological friendly in the sense that low amounts of water and energy are needed for insects farming. Insects also feed on waste materials hence aiding in waste management and climate control with respect to the emission of greenhouse gases. Below are some of the insects which are used or considered for use as either human food or animal feed:

  • Meal worms
  • Grasshoppers
  • Locusts
  • Crickets
  • Houseflies
  • Black soldier fly
  • Silkworms, etc.

While scientific evidence points out the benefits of insects and seemingly encouraging their consumption, the question is, how prepared are we to dine on insects? Our perceptions and attitude towards the consumption of insects will either promote or delay the inclusion of insects in our diets!