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Columnists

Create innovation clusters for risk-takers

Participants at the Nairobi Innovation Week last year. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG
Participants at the Nairobi Innovation Week last year. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG  

Virtually every country is seeking an economic growth that is inclusive, sustainable and innovative.

Unfortunately these terminologies are foreign to governments given the fact that they almost never tolerate any form of mistakes that may be misconstrued as corruption.

Innovation is uncertain and as Brazilian found out, “uncertainty means that agents concerned with innovation cannot calculate in advance the odds of success or failure— that is, results are unknown — and, therefore, to succeed we must also accept occasional failures and detours from planned routes.”

The Brazilian Government decided to deal with the problem head-on with a mission-oriented policy. In other words, they came up with an innovation policy that is about identifying and articulating new missions that can galvanise production, distribution, and consumption patterns across sectors.

A new form of thinking that requires an original justification of government intermediation that goes beyond fixing market failures and creating new opportunities for economic growth.

In Kenya for example, after many years of deliberating about connectivity to the region, it was the government that took the bold steps of building the undersea cable to provide cheap broadband.

The decision although criticised initially as another white elephant has no doubt changed the economic fortunes of all countries in East Africa.

It went beyond fixing the then market failure to influencing a can-do-it attitude to attract more investments into more undersea cables that have helped sustain affordable broadband as well as enabling greater inclusivity.

Like the Brazilians, the time has come to rethink the role of government and public policy in the economy. Problems are varied and enormous.

While young people are unemployed, many other people suffer food, water and energy deficiency as diseases and insecurity threaten the livelihood of millions.

New technological advances promise ways of dealing with these problems, but it will require the commitment of both public and the private sector in enabling these technologies.

Therefore, the governments must take risks as we did with the cable and the private sector must look to new business models that enable inclusivity.

Governments must become entrepreneurial, take the risk knowing that they could hugely succeed or flatly fail but as Mark Zuckerberg said, “The biggest risk is not taking any risk... In a world that changing quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

We must not look elsewhere to validate creative ideas we generate locally. It is the reason there is a dire need for mission-oriented policy initiatives in Kenya and investments in innovation clusters to expand the economy and deal with our vexing problems.

I repeat here that we need to invest in maker spaces, incubation and acceleration centres if indeed we want to expand our manufacturing capabilities. The mushrooming of start-ups suggest that the government must step up efforts to enhance its innovation process by funding basic research to early-stage seed financing of start-ups.

Our success is limited if we continue to leave foreign firms to provide early-stage funding that can be sorted out if we had a mission-oriented policy to fix our problems.

The President’s Big Four Agenda is sufficient to propel Kenya to another level if we stop doing business as usual. Many disruptions would come about in manufacturing if we had a government-led industrial development by enabling Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to acquire technology and become competitive.

It is no longer prudent to leave it to the private sector to exploit all the opportunities when they can. It will take our local SMEs many years to attract foreign direct investment to grow beyond where they are at the moment.

The government has to re-think here.

The Brazilian policy document states: “This new mission-oriented approach means developing, implementing and monitoring a strategic innovation policy programme that draws on the strengths of its innovation system to overcome the country’s weaknesses and address its challenges, seizing the opportunities offered by such a vast and richly endowed country.”

It is our turn to wake up.

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