For innovation and jobs, think grassroots

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Does everything always come in its order, or can we, maybe, skip forwards to putting on the roof, and thus shelter on our house, while we are still building the foundations?

For, a few years back, Kenya had started to depart from the normal developing economy pathway.

The difference was a skip-hop forwards to stage 3, innovation, where it was still barely moving in primary industries and infrastructure, which are normally the precursor to vigorous service and intellectual industries.

That had fuelled a parade of innovation hubs, which have kept growing, with one of the most recent at Nairobi University creating, in a matter of months, more than 17 new aides to assist in securing the health of mothers and babies. Yet there remains a gulf, somewhere, between these hubs and the cracks in our human welfare.

For, courtesy of Covid, there was an occasion I arrived back in Kenya from the UK during its red-list period, and had to quarantine for seven days. A friend put me up in a compound in Siaya. All the water came in plastic barrels dragged out of Lake Victoria: only later did I focus on Neglected Tropical Diseases and realise it was one of our top sources of Bilharzia, even touching the water. Yet on a walk around the area, after my all-clear, we passed a house where the ‘tap’ was pointed out to me — a wooden frame and hanging piece of soap — as an item of significance. Much later, I was shown a video by the WeFarm NGO, which explained ‘tippy taps’, which were that same, wooden frame. Yet, in that context and area, that tap was a feature to visit, it made a difference, but had not spread like wildfire. The same video had a woman explaining how she added water purification tablets to her water, but I never saw any tablets being used while I was by the lake.

So, how do we get beyond just one water-safe tippy tap?

I think, now, the answer is rather large. For we have gone a long time coming up with ideas and trying to get funding to develop them. But I have seen, of late, that we could go far further and far faster by working with all the world’s innovations and having our innovators apply them in Kenya.

Take water. There is now a fabric, invented by a Swiss firm, Livinguard, that the World Economic Forum has named a global innovator. Designed to hold positive charges that attract bacteria and viruses and are so strong that they break their cell walls, destroying them, the fabric is on sale in Kenya today as a virus-eating face mask that kills all Covid variants.

But in India, its developers have partnered with firms to create sanitary towels that can be simply washed in water and reused and never smell or have germs — imagine if we did that, and not only India, instead of all those pads we hand out that quickly become unusable? They had also partnered to create a community water purifier, where water ran through the germ-killing fabric, needing almost no power to run: the cost was so low per barrel, way less than any tablet.

Then, in Laikipia, I was later shown kilns that had been created using foreign technology to prevent smoke and fumes to create smokeless charcoal from the invasive lileshwa bush destroying pasturelands there. The scheme is banned now, alongside the charcoal burners that were harming the environment.

So there is our second rub – a legislative machine that bans eco-projects, trying to protect us from unecological ones.

In fact, if we really want to expand our innovation and solutions exponentially in 2022, we need more than those Nairobi centres. We need an innovation information service, feeding to all our youth, and farmers too, on breakthrough technologies we can partner with and apply, and a fast application process to our legislators to remove eco and innovation roadblocks.

Then we might get safe water, universal power, and jobs and incomes too, creating a faster foundation from our innovation, instead of a roof on a weak frame.