New technologies and the threat to sovereignty in Africa

Big continent and tiny technology: Nanotechnology and Africa

, by Pambazuka , WETTER Kathy Jo

Despite supposedly self-evident claims to its ability to solve social and health problems in Africa, developments in nanotechnology should be met with serious critical reflection, writes Kathy Jo Wetter. In a discussion of what nanotechnology is and the risks associated with it, Wetter underlines that the technology offers new opportunities of monopoly control ‘over both animate and inanimate matter’, while government regulations worldwide remain completely inadequate to address its unique risks.

The August 2010 issue of NANO Magazine, highlighting nanoscale research expected to have a positive impact on the developing world, included articles focused on energy generation, disease prevention and water purification. The articles reflect a now-familiar pattern: a presentation of the horrific scope of the current problem (e.g., unclean water responsible for 6,000 deaths every day) followed by a report on promising nanotech research that would seem to address the problem (e.g., electrostatically charged nanoscale particles that remove contaminants from water). Readers are expected to connect the dots along the way to the logical and inevitable conclusion: Who would say ‘no’ to nano?

Indeed, the 19 member countries of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) closed their recent summit, ‘Harnessing science and technology for development’, by urging the promotion and utilisation of nanotechnology and science, ‘given its application in various key areas such as medical treatment’.1 That wasn’t the first time experts have committed to pursue nanotechnology as a way to solve the global South’s most pressing problems of course. Back in 2005, the UN Millennium Project’s Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation had already identified nanotechnology as an important tool for addressing poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Early in 2010, however, participants at a regional awareness-raising workshop on issues related to nanotechnologies in Côte d’Ivoire were insisting that countries have the right to accept or reject the import and use of manufactured nanomaterials to minimise their risks.2 They also urged that attention be paid to the critical role of precaution and to nanotechnology’s ethical and social risks, in addition to benefits, especially in developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Here was a group of experts in Africa questioning the received wisdom of nanotechnology’s central role in solving the problems of the developing world, even going so far as to suggest that in some cases it may make sense to ‘say no to nano’.


Nanotechnology is a suite of techniques used to manipulate matter on the scale of atoms and molecules. Nanotechnology speaks solely to scale: Nano refers to a measurement, not an object. A nanometre (nm) equals one-billionth of a metre. Ten atoms of hydrogen lined up side-by-side equal one nanometre. A DNA molecule is about 2.5nm wide (which makes DNA a nanoscale material). A red blood cell is enormous in comparison: about 5,000nm in diameter. Everything on the nanoscale is invisible to the unaided eye and even to all but the most powerful microscopes. Only in the last quarter of a century has it been possible to intentionally modify matter at the nanoscale.

Key to understanding the potential of nanotech is that, at the nanoscale, a material’s properties can change dramatically; the changes are called ‘quantum effects’. With only a reduction in size (to around 300nm or smaller in at least one dimension) and no change in substance, materials can exhibit new characteristics – such as electrical conductivity, increased bioavailability, elasticity, greater strength or reactivity – properties that the very same substances may not exhibit at larger scales. For example, carbon in the form of graphite (like pencil ‘lead’) is soft and malleable; at the nanoscale carbon can be stronger than steel and is six times lighter; nanoscale copper is elastic at room temperature, able to stretch to 50 times its original length without breaking.

Researchers are exploiting nanoscale property changes to create new materials and modify existing ones. Governments around the world have already invested more than US$50 billion on nano-science and nanotechnology research. One market analyst firm expects the private sector to invest a staggering US$41 billion just this year. Companies now manufacture engineered nanoparticles that are used in thousands of commercial products, including textiles, paints, cosmetics and even foods.

Because nanoscale manipulations are now possible and, because the basic components of both living and non-living matter exist on the nanoscale (e.g., atoms, molecules and DNA), it is now possible to converge technologies to an unprecedented degree. Technological convergence, enabled by nanotechnology and its tools, can involve biology, biotechnology and synthetic biology, physics, material sciences, chemistry, cognitive sciences, informatics, geoengineering, electronics and robotics, among others. At the nanoscale there is no qualitative difference between living and non-living matter. (ETC Group uses the term BANG to describe technological convergence: bits, atoms, neurons and genes – the stuff that can come together when various technologies converge.)


The most direct impact of new designer materials created using nanotechnology is multiple raw-material options for industrial manufacturers, which could mean major disruptions to traditional commodity markets. It is too early to predict with certainty which commodities or workers will be affected and how quickly. However, if a new nano-engineered material outperforms a conventional material and can be produced at a comparable cost, it is likely to replace the conventional commodity. History shows that there will be a push to replace commodities such as cotton and strategic minerals – both heavily sourced in Africa and critical export earners – with cheaper raw materials that can be sourced or manufactured by new processes closer to home. Worker-displacement brought on by commodity-obsolescence will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable, particularly those workers who don’t have the economic flexibility to respond to sudden demands for new skills or different raw materials.

(In the face of perennially low and volatile prices for primary export commodities, and the persistent poverty experienced by many workers who produce commodities, few would argue in favour of preserving the status quo. Preservation of the status quo is not the issue. The immediate and most pressing issue is that nanotechnologies are likely to bring huge socio-economic disruptions for which society is not prepared.)

The beneficiaries of sudden shifts in market demand will be those in a position to see the changes coming, while the ‘losers’ will be the producers of primary commodities who are unaware of the imminent changes and/or those who could not make rapid adjustments in the face of new demands.


South Africa has had its eye on nanotech for the better part of the last decade for this very reason, paying particular attention to the impact new nanomaterials could have on minerals markets. In 2005, the country’s then-Minister of Science and Technology Mosibudi Mangena warned, ‘With the increased investment in nanotechnology research and innovation, most traditional materials … will … be replaced by cheaper, functionally rich and stronger [materials]. It is important to assure that our natural resources do not become redundant, especially because our economy is still very much dependent on them.’3 The government launched its National Nanotechnology Strategy the same year, funding research & development (R&D) through the Department of Science and Technology, whose overall budget for 2009–10 neared US$600 million. South Africa is also a player in a cooperative nanotech R&D programme under the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA). Nanotech is one area of science collaboration, led by India, funded by a US$3 million trilateral research pool.


The qualities that make nanomaterials so attractive to industry across a wide range of fields, particularly pharmaceuticals – their mobility and small size, on the same scale as biological processes, and their unusual properties – turn out to be the same qualities that may make them harmful to the environment and to human health. Human cells are generally larger than nanoscale – on the order of 10-20 microns in diameter (10,000-20,000 nm) – which means that nanoscale materials and devices can easily enter most cells, often without triggering any kind of immune response. While there is great uncertainty about the toxicity of nanoparticles, hundreds of published studies now exist that show manufactured nanoparticles, currently in widespread commercial use (including zinc, zinc oxide, silver and titanium dioxide) can be toxic. Some nanoparticles can cross the placenta, posing significant risks to developing embryos. Workers who experience routine occupational exposure to nanoparticles will likely be most at risk.

Back in 2002, ETC Group called for a moratorium on the commercialisation of new nano products until they could be shown to be safe, to protect workers as well as consumers. In 2007, a broad coalition of civil society, public interest, environmental and labour organisations from across the globe worked out a set of Principles for the Oversight of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials grounded in the Precautionary Principle.4 With the exception of the occasional reporting requirement, no government regulations yet exist that address the unique risks posed by nanoscale materials, and the commercialisation of nanotech products continues unhindered.

While no one knows how many workers are exposed to manufactured nanomaterials currently, the number of workers involved in nanotech is predicted to reach as high as 10 million worldwide within five years. Given the uncertainties regarding exposure and health effects, the international trade union IUF (Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers World-Wide) has called for a moratorium on commercial uses of nanotechnology in food and agriculture. The Côte d’Ivoire conference participants made the sane recommendation that workers be involved in developing occupational health and safety programmes and measures in relation to manufactured nanomaterials, and countries were encouraged to set up and enforce legal provisions to ensure safe practices with regard to production, use, transport and disposal of nanoparticles and nanomaterials.


Nanotechnology provides new opportunities for sweeping monopoly control over both animate and inanimate matter. In essence, patenting at the nanoscale could mean monopolising the basic building blocks that make life possible. Whereas biotechnology patents make claims on biological products and processes, nanotechnology patents may literally stake claim to chemical elements, as well as the compounds and the devices that incorporate them. With nanoscale technologies, the issue is not just patents on life – but on all of nature – opening up new avenues for biopiracy (see Oduor Ong’wen’s contribution in this special issue). Control and ownership of nanotechnology is a vital issue for all governments because a single nanoscale innovation can be relevant for widely divergent applications across many industry sectors.

Many who envision nanotech bringing benefits to Africa ignore the realities of technology transfer and intellectual property. Intellectual property is being driven by the North and promotes the interests of dominant economic groups, both North and South. A 2006 study reported that Africa accounts for just 0.4 per cent of all patents granted throughout the world, while the United States and Europe together account for 81.8 per cent.5

More than 12,000 patents in the field of nanotechnology have been awarded, granted over three decades (1976–2006) by the three offices responsible for most of the world’s nanotech patenting – the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), the European Patent Office and the Japan Patent Office.6 As of March 2010, close to 6,000 nanotech patents had been granted by the USPTO and a further 5,184 applications were waiting in the queue. Multinational corporations, universities and nanotech start-ups (primarily in the OECD countries) have secured ‘foundational patents’ on nanotech tools, materials and processes – that is, seminal inventions upon which later innovations are built – and nanotech ‘patent thickets’ are already causing concern in the US and Europe.

Meanwhile, African governments are under pressure to enact tougher intellectual property laws that recognise the rights of patent owners. In June, the US government, reportedly spending millions of dollars campaigning for an Anti-Counterfeits Trade Agreement (ACTA), hosted a three-day regional workshop in Kampala, where the East African Community was encouraged to take the lead – in the interest of public safety! – in developing enforcement procedures and regional standards.[7]

Researchers in the global South are likely to find that participation in the proprietary ‘nanotech revolution’ is highly restricted by patent tollbooths, obliging them to pay royalties and licensing fees to gain access – which is not to suggest that nanotech, unencumbered by patents, will provide solutions for the South’s most pressing needs. On the contrary, a technological fix can never bring about equity.

Ultimately, however, nanotech will profoundly affect Africa’s economy, regardless of its level of direct participation or its handling of intellectual property. It is crucial that commodity-dependent developing countries in Africa gain a fuller understanding of the direction and impacts of nanotechnology-induced technological transformations, and participate in determining how converging technologies could affect their futures. Innovative approaches are needed to monitor and assess the introduction of new technologies. Early-warning and early-listening strategies must be developed to keep pace with technological change. The recommendations put forward by the participants in the regional workshop in Côte d’Ivoire are a strong start. ETC Group has called for the creation of a broadly inclusive International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT) at the United Nations.


1 Anon. ‘Africa: Nineteen countries pledge to promote science,’ University World News, Issue 139, 12 September 2010,, with link to Summit Communiqué.

2 Resolution on nanotechnologies and manufactured nanomaterials by participants in the African regional meeting on implementation of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire, 25 – 29 January 2010. The event was one in a series of regional awareness raising workshops, and was organized by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the OECD.

3 Opening Address by Mr. Mosibudi Mangena, Minister of Science and Technology at a Project Autek Progress Report Function, Cape Town International Convention Centre, 8 February 2005.

4 The Principles are available online at

5 Sikoyo, G., Nyukuri, E., Wakhungu, J. (2006) Intellectual Property Protection in Africa: Status of Laws, Research and Policy Analysis in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. Ecopolicy Series. ACTS Press

6 Hsinchun, C. et al., ‘Trends in nanotechnology patents,’ Nature Nanotechnology, Vol. 3, March 2008, pp. 123-125.

7 Wambi Michael, ‘U.S. Intensifies Anti-Counterfeit Drive in East Africa,’ Inter Press Service, 19 July 2010:


This article is also available in French.