When I was a student in America in the 1980s, students from the now newly industrialised countries (NICs) of Asia constituted more than half of the students in Math and Science classes. Many of them went back to their countries as soon as they finished their degrees.
In hindsight, sending so many students to study science and technology in America was a conscious strategy by these countries to transfer knowledge from research intensive America to their developing nations.
They succeeded. Many of my former classmates now hold key positions in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, India and Korea. Many of them made me believe that Kenya could emulate their strategy and begin to grow as they did. I believed them.
When I got the slightest opportunity to influence the course of things during former president Mwai Kibaki’s administration, I really tried.
The Kibaki Presidency allowed me to think big and to traverse many countries, from the US to the NICs, courting research institutions to partner with us.
They advised that we needed to build a technology ecosystem from where they could lend their knowledge to Africa in a focused manner. Konza Technocity was born.
Last week, at a workshop in Norfolk Hotel, the South Koreans actualised their commitment to work with us. They shared secrets to success with us.
Different South Korean research institutions made presentations and sought to collaborate with local research institutions. They genuinely want to be part of Africa’s renaissance.
They told us that many of their universities have many Ethiopian students, which perhaps explains why the country is growing her GDP at more than 12 percent per year.
The South Koreans have set up satellite research centres in Ethiopia just like was done in the 70s and 80s when they needed knowledge from the US.
In Kenya, they will replicate their own Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which will be known locally as Kenya Institute of Science and Technology, at Konza.
The Konza site was a culmination of many studies and intensive consultations with the Bretton Woods institutions on where to locate it.
Studies suggested that such an ecosystem should never be far away from a major city, and must be within 30 minutes from a major airport. Land on which it was to be built must be free from legacy encumbrances.
In spite of the rigour that went into making such an important decision, politicians began to fight its location even before understanding the concept.
They simply wanted to influence what cannot be influenced in any way. As usual, many did not believe any positive thing could come out of the barren land.
Media refused to explain that of the total estimate of $10 billion project, the country would only invest a fraction of it in utility infrastructure and investors would meet the cost of vertical infrastructure.
Prominent economists too weighed in on this matter as a waste of public resources that could best be used elsewhere. They poured cold water on the project and virtually chased away would-be local investors.
Fortunately, many of the international investors who understand that a growing country like Kenya with a diversified economy would at some point need such facilities remained.
The commitment to build KAIST should act as a turning point from persistent thoughts of vested interests to seeing value in greater good for all.
Kenya cannot achieve its Vision 2030 objectives without strong links between industry, research institutions and the government (the triple helix). Many of the failed projects in this country were as a result of dwelling on negativity and on selfish aggrandisement.
Instead, the country must always appreciate that it has major challenges that need urgent attention, including creating employment for the swelling youth population, reducing poverty and growing the economy.
Founded in 1971 as Korea Advanced Institute of Science through a $6 million loan from the United States Agency for International Development (USAid), the institute has played a key role in the transformation of South Korea.
More than 60 per cent of the institution’s close to $1 billion budget comes from industry research contracts. It is precisely what Kenya needs today to start the journey - self-financing public institutions that support the country’s innovative capacity.
Further, as envisaged in Konza, the need for a strong research institution will give rise to especially the manufacture of light electronic products. Manufacture of these types of products is increasingly being outsourced to emerging economies like Kenya.
South Korea has presented Kenya with a great opportunity to collaborate, develop human resource capacity and propel the country into the Fourth industrial revolution.
But for this to happen, Kenya must focus her energies on the positive side of development.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.