Exactly two decades ago in 1997, researchers from the University of Maryland in USA revealed that ecosystem services in the world were worth a staggering USD33 trillion. This amount was almost double the entire global economic wealth. Ecosystem Services come directly from nature and provide us with basic needs like food and water. More broadly, the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment placed ecosystem services into four areas: supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural services. Contained in these ecosystem services is natural capital that is worth trillions.
Here in Africa and indeed most of the world, one of the most overlooked natural capital is genetic resources.Kenya has genetic resources that can earn our Nation billions or even trillions of shillings. The exact economic potential remains unknown, which is why there is need for the Government to invest millions into research and development of our country’s genetic resources and their economic value.
Kenya’s Soda Lakes Microbial Bioprospecting project is leading the way in ushering the country towards sustainable prospecting and utilization of our genetic resources. It brings together a variety of players that include local Soda Lakes Communities, Kenya Wildlife Service, UN Environment, Researcher from Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta and Moi Universities plus Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute.
Kenya’s soda lakes like Lake Magadi and Lake Bogoria contain extremely valuable microorganisms. Known as microbes, these microorganisms contain enzymes that are critical ingredients in the pharmaceutical, textile and detergent industries amongst others. In the pharmaceutical industry enzymes enhance curative qualities whereas in detergents, they contribute in faster, better cleaning. These are not miracle items. It only means that they contribute to developing vital drugs and detergents that fetch trillions of shillings for manufacturers.
In the past, multi-national companies were in the habit of prospecting genetic resources from countries like Kenya without paying their fair share of taxes to national governments and royalties to local communities. This injustice was reversed in Kenya in 2014 when the Endorois Community, which lives next to Lake Bogoria, benefited from their lakes genetic resources.
Kenya Wildlife Service coordinated an arrangement that saw the Endorois Community receive royalty payment for an enzyme that was extracted from a microorganism in Lake Bogoria’s hot springs nearly 15 years earlier. Although the amount paid was deemed minimal by some, it was a big step forward in proving that the soda lakes indeed contained commercially valuable organisms.Despite the fact that these microorganisms can’t even be seen by the naked eye, their value is indeed gigantic.
In addition, the royalty payment set a precedent where local communities who are local custodians of natural resources share benefits accruing from these natural resources. As such, genetic resources like those contained in Lake Bogoria can be a gateway for communities to play more prominent roles in conservation even as they team up with other partners to tap into the natural capital of those resources. Think Green, Act Green!
Yours in Green,
Dr Isaac Kalua