African Union to unveil multi-billion shilling fund for investment in AI and biotech startups

The African Union has embarked on efforts that will draw the continent closer to developed economies in geopolitically contested areas such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

While seeming farfetched, the vaccine nationalism witnessed during the pandemic and the sudden impacts of ChatGPT on education and white-collar jobs show that the global stakes over these technologies are real and Africa needs to step up or risk further, and perhaps irreversible, marginalisation.

In a press statement seen by Nation.Africa, the organization said it is marshaling “tens of millions of dollars” in support of this endeavour, with pledges committed to a raft of current initiatives already having topped Sh140 billion.

The first phase of financing for innovative initiatives through programs such as the Pathogenic Genomics Initiative, the Pan-African Vaccine Manufacturing Initiative, and the Saving Lives & Livelihoods program saw African Union agencies mobilise millions of dollars that are already bearing fruits.

Startups using AI, genomics, gene editing, and other novel techniques to solve some of the continent’s most urgent problems in health, manufacturing, and trade while creating jobs for millions of unemployed youth are best positioned to tap into upcoming flows of fresh resources in the subsequent phases of the undertaking.

Going forward, the African Union, its core agencies, and strategic partners, like AfroChampions will more tightly coordinate and synergise their interventions through the newly launched 4D Pact. The 4D Initiative is the product of collaboration among key institutions such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat, Africa CDC, African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC), and African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF).

“This creates a path for them to mobilise tens of millions of dollars from development finance institutions and aid agencies,” a statement seen by this newspaper reads.

Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (BADEA) and Afreximbank are supporters of the vision.

Monique Nsanzabaganwa, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission told Nation.Africa that the initiative will commit resources to new actors in Kenya and other major centres of African innovation such as startups, university spinoffs, accelerators, incubators and intellectual property (IP) commercialisation entities.

“The details are still being worked out, but phase one initial pledges are already crossing the $1 billion (Sh140 billion) mark. Much of that is linked to existing commitments in vaccine manufacturing and genomics across different agencies,” she said.

The 4D Initiative builds on the Trillion Dollar Fund announced in 2020 which initially focused primarily on driving trade in goods manufactured in Africa under the AfCFTA. The emphasis will now expand to cover biotech innovation and AI.

Digital platforms

To ensure that the funds being mobilised have a major social impact, an innovation marketplace and common digital platforms such as the AfCFTA Hub, ProPer, Tranzyt, PanaBIOS, and Transforma, have already been created by a consortia led by leading AU agencies and other stakeholders, with technical support from AfroChampions. These meta-platforms will ensure that services created by startups can scale up faster, secure market access and overcome regulatory barriers.

To mark Africa Integration Day, key continental players are coming together at a virtual summit dubbed the Boma of Africa on July 8 to, in the AU’s words, “articulate a game-changing action plan, to harness the power of technology as an enabler, to foster a culture of collaboration, and to propel scientists, startups and innovators to new heights.”

The AU further asserted that “Africa is a potential four trillion-dollar market where opportunities for advancing areas such as biomedical, vaccine, biopharmaceutical, e- genomics, and biosecurity abound, just waiting to be harnessed.”

According to the technical specialists in Addis Ababa working on this vision, “Signing the 4D pact will jumpstart continental integration, thereby driving job creation and establishing stronger knowledge economies. This aligns with the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 outlining the vision for the ‘Africa We Want.”

Development practitioners will surely be keeping an eye on how 4D contributes to breaking down the logjams preventing Africa’s startups, innovators, SMEs and research spinoffs from powering up continental industrialisation as it happens in places such as South Korea and Germany, where small, highly innovative, enterprises drive export competitiveness.

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