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Columnists

We must emphasise on applied research

In the past few years, Kenya has made great progress in institutionalising innovation.

This institutionalisation is largely the consequence of pressure from the youth, who have taken to innovation hubs such as the I-Hub, I-Lab, C4D, Chandaria Incubation Centre, the Industrial Technology Park at JKUAT and others.

The government has responded to the clear desire of the youth to engage in innovation with new policies and increased funding for research and development (R&D) but there is still some disconnect.

Kenya’s first innovation policy was launched in 2006 upon implementation of the Vision 2030 initiative. The policy declared that Kenya would break from the past and start doing things differently.

The Vision 2030 discourse centered on institutional reforms, human resource development, and enhanced R&D as well as improved science and technology infrastructure (STI).

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An emphasis was also placed on pursuing more and better collaborations and partnerships. The ministry of Education, Science and Technology (Moest) was created to spearhead capacity building and innovation.

The creation of Moest led to the development of several institutions that support innovation: The National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation, Kenya National Innovation Agency, the National Research Fund and Kenya Education Network.

In 2009, a comprehensive policy on STI Policy and Strategy (Stips) was developed. Stips sought to mainstream the application of science, technology, and innovation in all sectors and processes of the economy to ensure that Kenyans benefit from all available capacities and capabilities in order to achieve the objectives of Vision 2030.

Stips prioritised several areas for intervention, including agriculture and rural development; health and life sciences; trade and industry; human resource development; physical infrastructure; energy, environment, and natural resource management; and ICTs.

The Constitution also recognises the role of indigenous innovations in development. Article 11, section 2b and c of the Constitution reads: “… recognise the role of science and indigenous technologies in the development of the nation; and promote the intellectual property rights of the people of Kenya.”

To operationalise the constitutional requirement for the recognition of indigenous knowledge, a sessional paper on science and technology was published and, in 2012, the STI Act was enacted.

Despite enactment of these laws and formulation of relevant policy, as well as increased research funding by the government, the link between industry and academia is still missing.

There is very little collaboration between industry and academia. Even student internships are difficult to secure from industry. Our industrial sector, right from the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to large corporations, lack the culture of R&D and innovation.

This is disastrous because some of the large enterprises like Mumias, Uchumi and Kenya Airways are beginning to experience financial difficulties for failing to leverage on research and to continuously improve their products.

Although corruption is blamed in some of these cases, there are multiple variables that cause such failure – and lack of innovativeness tops the list.

Research show that our sugar industry is not competitive in the open market but we continue to pump good money into bad decisions.

We would be far better if data informed our decision-making, instead of gut feelings and political expediency.

Unfortunately, our politicians are the scientists, the policy makers and the implementers – and this is a line-up that has never worked anywhere. In most countries, there are think-tanks that spend time researching for the political class.

Decisions are then made based on data, and the entire country benefits, regardless of which political party is in power. The Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis has in the past played a key role in influencing the political class but its voice is largely muted.

The institute also leans more towards macroeconomics, with little research being done in other aspects of public policy. There is need for creating another body to focus on applied research.

This will be the real home for the majority youths who have taken to innovation as refugees from the harsh realities of unemployment in Kenya.

As part of applied research, the ministry of Information and Communication sometime back donated money to several universities to start production of Madaraka Computer.

The ministry also partnered with University of Nairobi to develop an analogue to digital content converter. We were anticipating digital migration. JKUAT went on to produce several computers and built manufacturing capacity.

Today, the university is producing 1,500 laptops per day and has greater capacity to innovate. The private sector failed to pick up the converter and we ended up importing all the converters and set-top boxes, which were sold to us at exorbitant prices although their production costs is known to be meager.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.

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