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Lessons from Nairobi Innovation Week

Many of the aspiring entrepreneurs may end up working independently and need pension as well. file photo | nmg
Many of the aspiring entrepreneurs may end up working independently and need pension as well. file photo | nmg 

I spent a great deal of time talking to young people attending the Nairobi Innovation Week (NIW), which was held last week.

The event, in its fourth year, was bigger and more exciting than the previous ones.

We often say in entrepreneurship that there is no idea that comes fully developed. It gets better as you go.

Indeed, the start of NIW four years ago was not colourful but the University of Nairobi soldiered on.

Last week’s event had more sponsors and better innovative exhibitions. Quality entrepreneurial ideas were pitched, key promising speeches were made and a greater number of visitors attended.

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Innovations came from many different thematic areas including: agriculture and food security, education, health and social services.

Although only eight won some prizes ranging from Sh500,000 to Sh1 million, there were great ideas that need to be developed further to make them viable.

Most of the pitchers made the classic mistakes of pitching an idea before developing such ideas fully, exposing their ideas to unscrupulous minds who might plagiarise them.

Nevertheless, it is in such fora where emerging entrepreneurs get to practice on how to pitch and begin to learn from their failures for failure is perhaps the best lesson successful people ever learnt.

The event was not just exciting to young people but the government, university researchers and the private sector.

This triple helix has been the missing link in Kenya’s development and if it will take more innovation events to bring them together, let it be.

Cabinet Secretaries Amina Mohamed (Education), Joe Mucheru (Information and Communications) and Adan Mohamed (Industry) attended the opening ceremonies.

Innovations precede regulation and it was reassuring to hear from Mr Mucheru that the government will enable innovation to thrive in Kenya.

Virtually all sessions, including tech agri-preneurship, were largely youth and one could feel a sense of enthusiasm. This is important in a country where the average age of a farmer is 60.

Young people’s interest in becoming farmers is growing, but more must be done to interest many unemployed young people to consider farming more seriously.

For example, leveraging big data to predict farm output can be a great driving force.

My discussion with many of the youth brought out many issues that are critical to the success of a farming venture. These include development of effective supply chains and collaborations of youth and academia to work towards optimal production.

These interventions, although not very comprehensive, are critical to solving other problems farmers face, such as lack of credit from the banking sector.

Among those I spoke to, Frida Mwangi stood out. Her story speaks to many Kenyans who pass their high school examinations but fail to go to university.

That small bump did not stop her from becoming a tech entrepreneur. She left State House Road Girls High School 20 years ago and spent most of that time as a housewife taking care of her four kids.

In 2015, she decided to work as an online freelancer mostly doing transcription work for the emerging concept of gig economy. As a result, she started Kaziremote Consulting Company to help others work online.

Her mission is to guide many others to work independently and also to convince local companies to embrace the gig economy.

Already, she holds bi-weekly meetings with other freelancers to influence policy like labour policies that remain archaic and lacking in the requisite creativity to embrace the emerging labour trends in spite of the fact that the country has been promoting the concept of self-employment.

Ms. Mwangi’s agenda is bigger. She is fighting for inclusivity of the informal economy which the public pension organisation discriminates against.

Yet more that 75 per cent of the workforce is in the informal sector. Many of the aspiring entrepreneurs may end up working independently and need pension as well.

Perhaps we need many of these conversations as Dr. Omwanza, the convenor of NIW summed it, “I have sown the seed and those who feel as much passion as I do, they can start the same elsewhere and soon the whole country will be talking.”

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