When I was a teenager, I really wanted to join the Kenya Army as a cadet officer but English failed me. I was motivated partly by the perception that soldiers appeared to be doing nothing most of the time.
It also looked like there was no possibility of war in our region. At the time, most of the officers drove around in sleek, forest green Land Rovers, resplendent in pressed uniforms made even more awesome by the rank insignia.
I must admit that I was oblivious to what other armies did in times of peace, but I later got to know that some armies are indeed the industrial bases of many countries.
Most are involved in applied research that becomes new products and new companies that create employment. So the news that the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) are doing research and that they have a patent in their hands comes as great news.
Armies across the world are involved in research and many of their innovations have gone on to become commercial products. The United States of America’s military is a leader in this area.
They are not only actively involved in research but are collaborating with top universities to come up with new, cutting-edge products.
Some of the inventions are licensed to private sector for civilian purposes. Collaborations between the US Army, private sector and academia worked to develop some of the best known technologies today such as Code Division Multiple Access that has been used commercially for communications globally, Global Positioning System, the Internet, and the microwave, to name but a few.
Dan Senor and Saul Singer in their book, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle refers to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) as “Battlefield Entrepreneurs” due to innovations that come from many officers retiring from active duty.
Perhaps this explains why, in addition to boasting the highest density of start-ups in the world, more Israeli companies are listed on the NASDAQ exchange than all companies from Europe. Spinoffs from these start-ups run into billions of dollars, and all this is as a result of IDF research activities.
The Ethiopian Defence Forces are the largest manufacturers of the Russian-designed T72 tanks and other militarised vehicles for the African market. All military vehicles used by the UN in Somalia were purchased from Ethiopia.
According to the Ethiopian defense ministry report, the manufacturing of weaponry in Ethiopia was started in the 18th century during the era of Emperor Tewodros and later under the reign of Emperor Menelik.
The basis for modern defense industry was laid by Emperor Haile Selassie with the co-operation of the government of Czechoslovakia.
Kenya has not done well in weapons manufacturing although it operates the Kenya Ordinance Factory, which produces bullets under licence. But it has highly trained personnel.
After all, KDF, as a professional army, each year recruits some of our best and brightest, a great number of who are already trained in specific technical professions, while others have advanced training in various areas.
All they would need after leaving the forces would be capital to start businesses. Kenya could emulate the Israel model and create a high turnover at the KDF to create space for many new recruits while at the same time releasing highly disciplined and capable officers into industry.
Some, just like in Israel, would end up becoming entrepreneurs if the government provided resources for research and setting mechanisms for accessing venture capital.
If a culture of research and innovation is inculcated within KDF and collaboration and links forged with local universities and other research centres, the private sector could be licensed to commercialise some of the research output while KDF uses those technologies that they need but are not ready for commercial use.
This is how we can fast track opportunity creation that precipitates enterprises and employment opportunities.
Our preoccupation as we prepare for the Global Entrepreneurship Forum here in Nairobi is how to attract greater venture capital for our nascent information and communications technologies industry.
Perhaps what we need to request from the Americans, including the Shark Tank team that is visiting, is greater collaboration and more venture capital. This will act as a magnet to young, disciplined KDF officers to leave the service and lead others into invention.
Although we have done relatively well with the current human resource capacity within the incubation centers, indiscipline remains one of the highest concerns.
This is where countries like Singapore, Korea and Israel with a conscription programme have literary excelled. Highly disciplined human resource comes into the market place each year from their armed forces.
The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.