Turning those ideas into innovationThursday December 22 2022
Watching numerous innovations that were shown during the Kenya Innovation Week (KiW 2022) under the theme: "Connecting Innovators Locally", which took place early this month, it was a clear indication that, indeed, we are living at a time when technological, generational, and social shifts are influencing our economy.
It was a clear reminder that the time has come for us to start turning our ideas into innovation.
And we need to look into how best we can use it for economic growth in Kenya and globally.
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Inventions like mobile money have significantly impacted economic growth in the past 20 years.
But, like wireless communication and mobile money inventions, emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Blockchain 3D printing have come with their disruptions.
In the process, they impact the economy.
AI is now showing promise in virtually every sector. For example, we are already seeing how AI has enabled credit scoring, which is essential in lending without collateral.
As a result, it is improving productivity and greater inclusivity.
Although everybody can come up with an idea, only some dare to go beyond the conception stage.
Further, every idea's application needs some context to flourish. Concepts based on emerging technologies have a more significant impact.
For example, a carpenter looking to introduce an innovative piece of furniture can leverage 3D printing to print prototypes and cut costs.
Our role is to continue coming up with new applications for these technologies.
Some concepts may be excellent, and others may not. But that is how creativity and innovation work.
Failure is part of the innovation process. We can learn from Thomas Edison. He attempted to invent the light bulb more than a thousand times, but he didn't view that as a failure.
A reporter asked him, "How does it feel to fail 1,000 times?" He said: "I have not failed 10,000 times. I've successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work."
Since Edison, we have learnt that we can reduce the number of failures before success comes through.
Countries with an innovation framework have higher success rates in moving their ideas into successive innovations.
Some innovations demand considerable resources for developing human resource capacity and research work.
Further, they nourish their startups with public and private venture capital (VC) funding.
As a result, they can take advantage of contextual issues such as Covid-19 to rapidly come up with a solution to the problem.
Kenya's 2012 Science, Technology, and Innovation Act gave rise to two key agencies.
The National Research Fund (NRF) and the Kenya National Innovation Agency (KNIA).
These two agencies and research institutions form part of the national innovation framework.
But they need to be visible. While research institutions were supposed to produce the talent pool, manage the pipeline, and develop innovation zones and acceleration centres, they dropped the ball.
As a result, the industry is disappointed with our graduates. Moreover, the course offering is still in the 19th century while we are in the age of Artificial Intelligence.
On the other hand, the private sector is yet to acknowledge the few accelerators we have at most institutions of higher learning.
As a result, the little venture capital that local Kenyans receive is mainly from the outside.
We must establish collaborations to ensure VC funding goes to those who need it most and have a viable idea.
President William Ruto's appeal for people to embrace creativity and innovation in his Jamhuri Day Speech comes at the right time.
The fourth industrial revolution technologies are beginning to impact society.
The President's promise to support startups with VC funding solidifies Kenya's innovation framework.
We need to borrow ideas on how to strengthen our framework.
For example, while visiting the European Chambers of Commerce in Brussels, I learnt that the organization has a significant role in skills development.
At the EU level, the organization campaigns for vocational education and training that combines apprenticeship schemes with academic learning at secondary and tertiary levels.
Euro-chambers actively participate in the discussion of educational and training policies. And it is involved in several technical committees on skills, qualifications, and training at the EU level.
Additionally, it strongly supports improved apprenticeship programs and more precise skill projections.
As a result, institutions of higher learning revise their curriculum regularly to foster innovation and relevance to the market. It is these interactions that lead to forecasting future skills the industry requires.
Kenya is making progress in building a robust innovation framework. But in the meantime, people must commit to turning every idea into an innovation.
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Success demands tenacity but before starting an innovation journey, spend time searching for a good idea or changing existing products within your environment.
Learning from Edison, he was tired of using lanterns that were prevalent at the time. There are ways we can use to narrow the search for successful innovations.
The writer is Kenya’s Ambassador to Belgium, Mission to the European Union, Organization of African Caribbean and Pacific States and World Customs Organization. The article is written at a personal level.