Kenya’s profile as a research and technology hub is set to receive a major boost as the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) gears to operationalize its first Regional Research Centre (RRC) in Africa.

The ICGEB Regional Research Centre to be domiciled at Egerton University’s main campus in Njoro Sub-County, the second such outfit in the world after the one in China, will specialize in food safety, molecular plant breeding, molecular plant pathology and entomology.

Speaking after inspection of facilities that will host the RRC by a team of officials from ICGEB led by its Director, Prof. Ramesh Venkata Sonti, Egerton University Chancellor Prof. Isaac Kibwage disclosed that the center is set to also foster ongoing and future cutting-edge, research in genetic biofortification, development of molecular diagnostic tools and their applications and Bioprospecting for biopesticides and bioactive compounds.

“The visit primarily focused on inspecting the location of the future RRC, situated at the Physical Science Complex on Egerton University’s Main Campus in Njoro. This cutting-edge facility will encompass four high-tech laboratories along with office spaces, providing the ideal environment for groundbreaking research in genetic engineering and biotechnology,” stated Professor Kibwage.

The ICGEB board which runs 46 state-of-the-art laboratories, in Trieste, Italy, New Delhi, India and Cape Town, South Africa has also approved the appointment of National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) Director General Professor Walter Oyawa as ICGEB Governor for Kenya.

During the 22nd session of the ICGEB Board of Governors held in Cape Town in 2016, it was decided to explore possibilities of setting up ICGEB- RRC in Africa. Subsequently, during the Annual General Meeting in December 2020, ICGEB Board resolved that Kenya was to host the RRC within its territory.  Professor Oyawa was tasked to identify the institution to host the RRC.

Seven universities in Kenya had applied to host the Research Centre and thereafter three were shortlisted for further on-site inspection culminating in the selection of Egerton University.

Also present during the inspection tour was Group Leader, Plant Transcription Regulation at ICGEB Dr Jitendra Thakur.

Prof. Kibwage indicated that since biotechnology development remains a top priority in enhancing food security, evolving more efficient and cleaner industrial manufacturing processes, and reducing negative effects on the environment in Kenya, establishment of the Regional Research Centre in the country comes at an opportune time.

He elaborated, “Evidence shows biotechnology has so far aided in increasing food production as scientists aim at making it beneficial to the environment too. Biotechnology might simply be the solution to Kenya’s future and current agricultural problems like adverse climate and weather changes, feeding an ever-growing population and converting the huge bare chunks of land into arable land.

The ICGEB is an intergovernmental and nonprofit research organization. Established on November 25, 1987 as a special project of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (Unido), it became fully autonomous in 1994 and now incorporates over 65 Member States. A further 22 countries are waiting to become members pending ratification by the Council of Governors.

ICGEB Egerton University Principal Investigator Prof. Josiah Omolo explained that the Center dedicates its resources to advanced research and training in vaccine development, molecular biology and biotechnology and advancing knowledge, applying the latest techniques in the fields of biomedicine, crop improvement, environmental protection/remediation, biopharmaceuticals, biopesticides and biofuel production

Prof. Omolo said ICGEB which also strengthens the research capability of its members through training and funding programmes and advisory services also promotes research themes associated with infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases and industrial biotechnology.

Prior to the selection of Egerton University as the first ICGEB –RRC in Africa, a review panel comprising of scientists from the USA, Italy, India and South Africa, and experts from other Kenyan institutes led by Dr Lawrence Banks and Professor Oyawa, had visited the institution on February 3, last year for an on-site inspection.

Kenya, Prof. Omolo noted, has a great potential to grow crops bio technically like Africa’s top countries namely South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso adding that development of Herbicide tolerant crops for instance would save farmers the many hours spent on the farm getting rid of weeds thus invest the time on other productive agricultural activities that will help promote food security.

“Various studies show biotechnology in Kenya can be improvised to help farmers even diagnose crop diseases by incorporating mobile technology,” offered the don who teaches Organic Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science at Egerton University

Prof. Omolo added, “The first on-site inspection team was impressed by the commitment demonstrated by the University Management, synergies between faculty members, and clear understanding and coherence of the RRC concept by the proposed Project Team. Subsequently the ICGEB Board of Governors during its 28th Session held on 17-18 May, 2022 in Trieste Italy, finally endorsed the Kenya’s proposal to host the center,”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Administration, Planning and Development), Professor Richard Mulwa indicated that the centre will be instrumental in strengthening research skills, knowledge and capacities of the scientific community while pursuing specific objectives for research, training, and technology transfer to industry.

“This is a landmark achievement by Kenya as a global powerhouse in science, technology and innovation. The ICGEB-RRC will be collaborating with institutions from the Member Countries in the region in scientific research and mentoring the smaller universities in Kenya. Hosting the ICGEB -RRC brings additional advantages, including promoting development and job creation beyond the hosting country, Kenya,” the Deputy Vice Chancellor noted.

As an institution involved in research and academic work in the areas of disease biology, vaccine development, diagnostic and therapeutic, Professor Mulwa indicated that the Centre will strive to make its contributions in promoting international collaborative efforts to develop technologies to improve human health globally.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs) Professor Bernard Aduda assured that the new ICGEB- RRC in Africa will operate as a Centre of Excellence for research, training and technology transfer to industry to promote sustainable global development. It will, he added provide a scientific environment of top international standard for advanced research and education and for the development of biotechnology products.

After Egerton University made a bid to host an ICGEB RRC in Kenya, acting Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Extension at Egerton University Professor Bockline Omedo Bebe appointed a technical team in February 2021, to develop a proposal in response to the submission, which was submitted to NACOSTI in March 2021. The technical team consisted of Professor Omollo who assumed the role of Institutional Principal Investigator, Professor James Owuoche and Professor Liu Gaoxiong.

Others in the team included Dr. Miriam Charimbu, Dr. John Nduko, Dr. Joseph Mafurah, Dr. Pascal Okwiri, Dr Elijah Lelmen, Dr. Kiplagat Ngeno, Dr. Joel Khobondo and Dr. Stephen Indieka.

Presently more than 400 individuals drawn from 38 countries are working in the ICGEB laboratories as research scientists, post-doctoral fellows, PhD students, research technicians and administrative personnel.