Agricultural and biosystems engineering: the cutting edge of innovation for the circular bioeconomy

The changing context of socio-economic development in sub-Saharan Africa is characterised by high population growth rates, urbanisation and changing consumption patterns among other transitions. These transitions induce diverse transformations in coupled human and natural systems, particularly the evolution of food systems.

Text Joseph Thokozani Mwale, Idani Lichilo Photo Mulungushi University
circular graph of the food system
Figure 1: Our Food System (Source:

A general scholarly conceptualization of a food system describes it as a chain of activities from field production to consumption involved in feeding society. Thus, a food system comprises all processes and related infrastructure involved in the production, harvesting, processing, packaging, transportation, marketing, consumption, distribution and disposal of food and food-related biomaterials (See Figure 1). Viewed as an open system, a food system operates under the influence of social, political, economic and environmental contexts especially in the contemporary 21st century wherein global environmental change weaves complex outcomes for the food system.

Following the food through its complex pathways reveals distinct patterns of agricultural intensification, value addition, distribution and retail, and dietary transitions that have implications for the resilience and sustainability of the present human civilisation. The evolution of conventional and future food systems is to a greater extent driven by science, technology and innovation within the knowledge-based global economy.

The negative outcomes of the food system typically represent the problems of a linear economic system model.

Central to this knowledge-based worldview of the food system is the role of the knowledge discipline of Agricultural and Bio-systems engineering herein advanced as the cutting edge of innovation and entrepreneurship within the circular bio-economy. According to the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, this field of study combines mechanical, civil, electrical, food science, environmental, software and chemical engineering disciples to improve the efficiency and productivity of agricultural bio-systems and the related agribusiness enterprises, while ensuring the optimum conversion and utilisation of the bio-resources (See Figure 2). Thus, agricultural and bio-system engineers apply engineering science and technology to perform diverse professional tasks such as designing, planning, supervising and managing bio-systems across the continuum of adaptations of the food system to the changing environment.

Bottles with Mulungushi University Honey etiquette
Figure 2: Processed food products

Agricultural and bio-systems engineering is particularly critical and relevant to the endeavours aimed at addressing the negative outcomes of the food system interactions such as water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, waste and deforestation. These negative outcomes typically represent the problems of a linear economic system model that is increasingly deemed unsustainable under the sustainable development paradigm of the United Nations.

Transformation towards a circular economy requires interventions in the education and training of emerging young entrepreneurs.

There is now increased attention to the notion of a circular economy as a means to a more sustainable world. As contrasted with a linear economic system, a circular economic system model (See Figure 3) is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. According to the World Economic Forum, the circular economy replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models. The circular economy is underpinned by a transition to reducing, reusing and recycling materials and products in ways that regenerate natural systems.

illustration of circular economy
Figure 3: Circular economy (Source:

While there is proof of concept of the circular economy with its huge potential for value creation within the coupled human and natural systems, there is a sense that circular business models may be challenging to develop and implement as the linear economy logic still holds tightly on most investors and entrepreneurs. Therefore, transformation towards a circular economy requires interventions into the affective domain of education and training of emerging young entrepreneurs. This domain includes the manner in which people deal with things emotionally such as feelings, values, appreciation, enthusiasms, motivations and attitudes. Coupled with the cognitive and psychomotor domains of learning, the affective domain provides the edge at which learners perceive complex situations and conceptualise problems and formulate solutions with their knowledge and skills.

Agricultural and bio-systems engineering present scope for the innovative and entrepreneurial development of the circular bioeconomy.

The most suitable instructional methodology that enhances such deep learning is the Project Based Learning (PBL) approach. Under PBL, complex real-world problems are used as the vehicle to promote the development of critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities and communication skills thereby providing opportunities for working in groups, finding and evaluating research materials, and life-long learning. This is the whole tenet of the PBL-BioAfrica project aimed at building capacity for circular agro-entrepreneurship within the bioeconomy of sub-Saharan Africa.

In advancing agricultural and bio-systems engineering as the cutting edge of innovation and entrepreneurship for the circular bio-economy, the starting point of this proposition stated earlier in this article was conceptualisation of the food system and how it fitted into the circular economy. It was demonstrated that the food system was a complex system operating across a continuum of adaptations of its components to the changing environment. It is hereby argued that agricultural and bio-systems engineering focusing on processing of agricultural products presents scope for the innovative and entrepreneurial development of the circular bioeconomy. This entails application of engineering science and technology to the design and development of components of the food system on principles of closing loops, renewable energy utilisation and recycling.

Within the interdisciplinary scope of the PBL-BioAfrica project, building capacity for circular agro-entrepreneurship may need to dwell upon the systems engineering approach to problem definition and solution formulation.