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Make 2017 Kenya’s year of ‘family innovation’ to address real problems

A boy counts tomatoes at an exhibition stand during an agribusiness fair in Eldoret. In 2017,  we should create greater personal responsibility for food security. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA
A boy counts tomatoes at an exhibition stand during an agribusiness fair in Eldoret. In 2017, we should create greater personal responsibility for food security. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA 

Any analysis of 2016 suggests that Kenya remains decidedly local while the world in front of us is changing in ways that many are struggling to decipher.

There seems to be two parts to our uncertain worldview as a middle-income economy, and a low human development country.

The first is the apparent “Western” rejection of globalisation, multilateralism and free trade – goods, services and labour – as the “utopian” path to growth and development.

Especially in a world of free-flowing finance as an end, not a means. n a terrible word, “financialisation.”

Read Greece, Brexit, Trump and anti-immigrant Europe. In 2017, watch France. States want their governments back. Nations want their governments out. Transnationals with larger revenues than the GDP of many low to middle-income economies are discovering that they are the “old normal.”

This is the external context that informs a National Treasury that has doubled our national debt since 2013, yet continues to test international waters for more debt to cater for a local public expenditure climate in which corruption is an key part of the “cost of goods and services.”

The other part is our continued “local parishioner” arguments about development vs politics, or, more to the point, development vs corruption.

As our August 2017 general election approaches, expect more noise despite the official calls for, and promises of, peace.

But what if we thought about 2017 differently, and imagine a year of noise around real progress rather than negative exchanges? I am secretly convinced that the current confused global climate – economic nationalism, anti-immigration policy, “taking our countries back” – presents an opportunity for Kenyans to begin the sort of silent revolution that this country badly needs.

Revolution? Yes, I refer to the technology (and) innovation revolution that has decimated the working class in the developed world, while presenting the developing world and Africa in particular, with the sort of leapfrog opportunity that could transform billions of lives.

Here’s my theory on how we begin to think about this in 2017. While the world speaks to the idea of what the World Economic Forum President Klaus Schwab has called the Fourth Industrial Revolution (e.g. robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles), in Kenya we have remained reliant on a government still structured around the first three.

So, our agriculture agenda is still about the first industrial revolution (mechanisation). Our education agenda is about the third (digital learning within the wider context of technology digitalisation).

Our ambitious infrastructure agenda speaks to the second (electricity to support mass production). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; government is, after all, a supply-side institution.

My interest lies in the demand-side. In 2017, how do we create the sort of social enterprise “movement” that begins to think through and address real problems, or build on existing innovations for Kenyans, especially the less fortunate? Here are a couple of thoughts to ponder.

First education. Education is really about two things – life skills and skills for life. If digital learning – where laptops and notebooks are the tool, not the goal – is the way forward, what does this mean for the design of the learning environment? Do classrooms matter any more? Is “learning at home, while being taught from school” the new normal?

Living conditions

What does this mean for the ongoing education curriculum review that will apparently do away with major examinations? How do learning resource personnel – educators, and no longer teachers – contribute to the quality of education content?

Second, health. Health is mostly about lifestyle and living conditions. M-health technologies surround us. But how we are using them to educate people and promote preventative health care, including lifestyle choices?

Especially since it seems well nigh impossible to shift our national health budget away from the curative side. Further, how do we promote better living conditions through improved hygiene?

Third, food. The fact that, year on year, famine and drought are an inevitable experience suggests to me that we are struggling to get to the point where we see that the right to food does not mean the right to be fed.

M-agriculture is a great start, but where is the tech that takes us deeper into creating personal responsibility for food security, say, through proper land use. As the World Bank has long noted, increased food security (access, availability, affordability) would have the greatest inequality-reducing impact on Kenyan lives.

There are many other right-based innovations our budding social entrepreneurs – technology at hand – could be thinking about - social protection that includes a savings element; low cost housing innovations that include space for small business activity; low cost media tools that inform, educate and entertain et al.

These examples suggest to me that we need to target households, not individuals, in our next innovation wave.
But it isn’t just about technology for households.

If we think about our banking sector (and its low interest rate regime) Bill Gates famous quote that “the world needs banking but it doesn’t need banks” will resonate with many. Think peer-to-peer lending, crowd funding and the like. Think fintech.

So it’s also about innovation that goes with the technology. Can we use Ushahidi as an anti-election rigging platform in 2017?

Can we finally find an alternative to the Kenya Power monopoly? It’s one thing to connect everyone to power, but, without jobs, who will pay the monthly bills?

Then there’s blockchain, erm, the new kid on the block. How are we thinking through its potential application as a reliable and unimpeachable data store?

Land records, birth and death, assets, companies, establishments. Basically everything in the information infrastructure pillar of our ICT master plan.

Why should 2017 be our year of innovation? First, after 2016 was for all intents and purposes a “black swan” year the world over. There has never been a better time than now to begin our leapfrog moment.

Second, Kenya’s transformational moment is now richer for our experiences since we passed a progressive constitution in 2010.

But mostly, however, we really need to make 2017 a year that is about more than the election.

Let’s not call it a “Year of Peace”, but rather, a “Year of Family Innovation”. Think about this as you usher in what I trust will be a happy and prosperous 2017 for you and family.

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