14 Nov 2017 Story Ecosystems

How Kenya’s Lake Bogoria is feeding the global biotech industry

Small micro-organisms have big potential benefits.

Lake Bogoria in Kenya’s Rift Valley is famed for its geysers, and its huge population of flamingos, which come to feed on algae and drink fresh water from lakeside spouts.

The lake itself is highly alkaline and twice as salty as seawater; it can’t support fish. But it has a secret wealth which is only now beginning to be tapped: The lake contains an unusual array of microbes and micro-organisms from which enzymes have been produced for use in antibiotics and cleaning products. Indeed, tiny organisms like those found in Bogoria are the basis of the multi-million dollar global biotech industry.

Local people stand to benefit from such discoveries, in line with the Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit-sharing with regard to genetic resources and their utilization. Kenya is a signatory to the Protocol.

Bogoria has deep spiritual and cultural significance for the Endorois people, who have lived beside, and been custodians of, the lake for centuries. But it’s only in the last few years that they have realized they are sitting on a potential gold mine.

In 1992, a researcher from a British University harvested some micro-organisms from the lake, and in 1995 sold them to companies in the Netherlands and the United States. Those companies were later sued by the Kenyan government for not sharing the financial benefits of their subsequent innovations with Kenya.

Wilson Kipkazi, chairman of the Endorois Welfare Council, says companies that conducted research at the lake never involved the community.

“We learned through media that multinational companies have made millions of dollars through genetic resources extracted from Lake Borogia.  This really made the community furious...

“Fortunately, later on, some companies… decided to talk to the communities and pay back some royalties... It was not much money but it changed lives.”

Less than 1 per cent of the royalties from a Danish company, for instance, enabled the local community to educate 246 children for a year.

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Kenya has five alkali or “soda” lakes – Bogoria, Elementaita, Magadi, Nakuru and Turkana.

A 2014-2018 pilot project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and led by UN Environment in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service and several Kenyan research and academic institutions, focuses on Lake Bogoria and Lake Magadi (the most alkaline of all Kenya’s lakes) and seeks to ensure equitable benefit sharing with local communities.

A key aspect of the project is scientific research of commercial value. Project partners are using micro-organisms from the two lakes to develop and produce enzymes for industry.

UN Environment and partners are working with the Endorois and other communities to ensure they receive their fair share of any resources from the lakes. They also want people to look after the ecosystems.

“Microbes or micro-organisms are natural capital,” says UN Environment ecosystems expert Levis Kavagi.

“This particular project is helping the communities first of all to realize they have the capital, and that this capital is worth conserving.  And if they conserve [it], they can see the benefits that will accrue from this capital. Kenya is at the forefront of implementing the Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit-sharing with regard to genetic resources and their utilization.”

Leather from fish skins

Kenya’s Industrial Research Development Institute and the University of Nairobi (partners in the GEF project) have managed to produce enzymes from microorganisms in the lake to make leather from fish skins.

With optimum temperature and oxygen, microbes can be made to reproduce themselves quickly, so it is possible to derive large quantities of enzymes from them. However, despite successful production of leather from fish skins in the laboratory, more work remains to be done – including getting private investors on board – to ramp up capacity for large-scale commercialization.

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Other Kenyan scientists are working with UN Environment and the Kenya Wildlife Service to develop new enzymes for local textile, detergent and pharmaceutical industries.

Rivatex East Africa is a textile manufacturing company owned by Moi University, one of the partners in the UN Environment-led project.

“We believe the soda lake has the potential of releasing enzymes that can be useful to the detergent industry and the dyeing industry,” says UN Environment ecosystems expert Mohamed Sessay, adding that the project could be a model for other countries to copy.

Enzymes play a similar role to some chemicals but they do so faster and in a more environmentally friendly way.

“The industrial enzymes that have their origins in Lake Bogoria could have huge benefits for Kenya’s economy and society at large,” says Kavagi.

Note: Some of the information for this article was from three broadcasts by RFI in May 2017.

For further information: Levis Kavagi Levis.Kavagi[at]unep.org

Media enquiries: unepnewsdesk[at]unep.org