What connection do marshmallows and DNA have? If one thinks of the spiral ones, then the answer is shape. However, in Zimbabwe, the SANBio/BioFISA II team came across another answer: marshmallows can be used in modelling genomes and molecules to educate children about genomics and get them excited about the sciences. That is exactly what the President & Chief Scientific Officer at AiBST, Prof Collen Masimirembwa, is doing as a small part of his activities: he has always been a strong believer in capacity building starting from an early age.
During their visit to Zimbabwe from the 25th to 29th of January 2016, the NEPAD-SANBio/BioFISA II team paid Prof Masimirembwa a visit, and heard and saw first-hand how he emphasizes passion in everything he does – and that this passion does appear rather contagious; you could also see it in the eyes of his team members and hear it in the way they talked about their work. Prof Masimirembwa comes across as a remarkably lively and enthusiastic researcher and team leader; who is not afraid of going for new approaches to problems and novel ways of doing things; the status quo is at all times anathema to their organisation. Be it starting to have their meetings standing up or walking, or moving into new areas of research when other parties are coming into the same field and taking up the initiative and precedent set by them, they aim to be frontrunners or pioneers in whichever direction they decide to take the organization.
To be exact, AiBST is a private not-for-profit research and education institute which is registered with the Ministry of Higher & Tertiary Education and works closely with the Ministry of Health & Child Welfare and the Ministry of Science Technology Development. At the same time AiBST is a hybrid institute with elements of tertiary academic institutions and biomedical R&D companies focused on translational research oriented to deliver on medical products and services that address Africa’s healthcare challenges. On the topic of the ground breaking work they have been doing, Prof Collen elaborated at length how the so called “one treatment (type of drug or dosage) fits all” may soon be a dying medical practice, as personalised medicine through pharmacogenetics brings us towards safer and more efficacious treatment of disease through the identification of a patient’s genetic status – which should actually be a major determinant in individualising treatment.
Naturally, AiBST was not the sole institution visited nor the main purpose of the team’s visit to Zimbabwe, even though it did prove an enlightening encounter. The NEPAD-SANBio/BioFISA II team was hosted by the SANBio Steering Committee partner, The National Biotechnology Authority (NBA), headed by Dr Jonathan Mufandaeza. The delegation also included representatives from the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology.
This series of meetings began with a courtesy visit to the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology, where the team met and discussed with Permanent Secretary Dr Machivenyika Mapuranga, who stated that “the government has recognised STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] disciplines as key drivers for economic growth and is doing [their] utmost to promote them”, noting also that biosciences are “of increasing importance to the country”.
The team also met with numerous other organizations, institutions and key stakeholders in the biosciences research and education field in Zimbabwe to discuss not only SANBio/BioFISA II but also the recent and current developments in the research landscape in Zimbabwe. These included Chinhoyi University of Technology, Harare Institute of Technology (HIT), the Faculties of Biological Science and Crop Science at the University of Zimbabwe, CIRAD (a French agricultural research and international cooperation organization working for the sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions), Tobacco Research Board, National University of Science and Technology, Bulawayo Polytechnic, and ICRISAT Matopos.
There are decidedly interesting developments and research project going on in Zimbabwe. At the Chinhoyi University of Technology research is being done on the edible stink bugs (Encosternum delegorguei) or "Harurwa" in Shona. These delicious insects have been shown to contain high levels of essential nutrients and anti-oxidants. Also, as the consumption of sugary drinks has increased in the region, with an increase in diabetes, at the University of Zimbabwe, the Crop Science department is busy with propagation of low calories, natural sweetener which is 30 times sweeter than sugar. It is estimated that 1 hectare of the sweetener is equivalent to 60-90 hectares of sugarcane in terms of sweetening power – thus, environmentally speaking, the use of this plant contributes to the smart use of land and water.
The above two examples are naturally just a small fraction of the on-going research in the various institutions and organisations across the country, and barely scratches the surface. With an increasing emphasis on STEM education in Zimbabwe, one can easily see that the present is only the beginning of great things to come.