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Economy

Rivatex banks on dye innovation to revive ailing textile sector

Workers at Rivatex East Africa Limited in Eldoret, which is owned by  Moi University,   make garments. The textiles firm is betting on innovations like new dyes to boost sales. File
Workers at Rivatex East Africa Limited in Eldoret, which is owned by Moi University, make garments. The textiles firm is betting on innovations like new dyes to boost sales. File 

Like most casual garments, African printed shirts hardly stir the kind of passion that outfits like kitenge, sarong or even dashiki have evoked in some societies.

But for Moi University’s vice chancellor Richard Mibey, an African shirt printed by Rivatex East Africa is a first pick despite the occasion.

This was the message he came with at Nairobi’s Hotel Intercontinental last week when he turned up in this starkly contrasting attire to share tables with ministers and top scientists from across Africa, most of them in sleek suits.

“It feels African and very natural. I wouldn’t think of a more fitting shirt for this occasion,” he said shortly after President Kibaki opened the 1st Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in Nairobi.

A plant pathologist and an avid researcher, the Business Daily would later learn that the oddity of this casual garment was worth Prof Mibey’s time, intellect and even dignity.

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The casual shirt is the most publicised of the garments that Rivatex has manufactured since Moi University lifted it from its death yard in 2007 and turned it into a demonstration facility for its students. Rivatex East Africa, a former textile giant once employed more than 1,000 workers and provided market of about 900 tonnes of cotton to Rift Valley farmers in its heydays of 1980s. Prof Mibey led the team that invented the dye (branded tamidye) that has been used in printing the shirt after three years of studying chemical qualities of “Stinking Roger” plant (tagetes minuta).

It is one of the five researches funded by National Council for Science and Technology and whose breakthrough the government is showcasing among other innovations that will lift Kenya’s global prominence.

Last week, at the STI forum, President Kibaki recognised the dye innovation, just weeks after management of Rivatex proclaimed it a magic wand that holds the key to the country’s ailing textile industry’s revival.

Most researches are abandoned midway after failing the test of commercial viability, but tamidye represents a rare direct return on the millions of shillings that the country invests in public institutions every year to promote innovations.

“We are fully committed to utilising science, technology and innovation for the benefit of our people,” President Kibaki said at the forum, adding that both Vision 2030 and new constitution recognise the critical role played by STI.

If adopted on a commercial scale, the researchers said, the country’s textile industry which currently relies on imports will save Sh18 million each year on procurement of dyes and lower prices of their goods by same margin.

M-shamba, a mobile phone-aided application developed by a biomechanical and processing engineering student of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Calvince Okello, was also honoured at the science and technology forum. Others were 3G mobile detector developed by 28-year-old Elijah Kupata, an electrical engineering graduate of Mt Kenya University; a mobile phone-assisted car tracking and security system developed by Morris Mbetsa 22; and a multi-purpose seed saver developed by Lawrence Matolo, head of science subjects at Machakos Teachers’ College.

For a long time, local banks and foreign financiers have shunned these innovations, saying most of the ideas are “immature” or too risky to put money in.

But five years after Kenya trail blazed the world in mobile money transfer through Safaricom’s M-Pesa, the country’s ICT sector is increasingly getting international recognition as a potent breeding ground for innovation. iHub, a technology incubator and innovation hub launched two years ago recently received about Sh12 billion ($150,000) from Google to expand . The World Bank has also been keen on promoting m:lab East Africa, a mobile incubation lab launched in Nairobi mid last year
The government has faulted a policy of financing few researchers who never pass benefits to ordinary consumers. This, together with donor fatigue of funding projects that never see the light of day is forcing scientists to widen their finance sources.

“We are negotiating with venture capitalists to start putting their money in some of these viable projects that local innovators have come up with,” said National Council for Science and TechnologyCEO, Prof Shaukat Abdulrazak.

Funding from private equity firms and venture capitalists has already lifted innovators like Craft Silicon out of incubation to become a top-notch developer and exporter of software. The company today has outlets in Lagos, Bangalore and California where it sells its range of core banking, microfinance, switching and electronic payment software. The government is placing bold bets on innovation, saying it is the silver bullet that will shake off poverty and help raise incomes of the country’s 38.6 million citizens in the next two decades.

The country’s long-term development blueprint —Vision 2030— is anchored on STI, macroeconomic stability, infrastructural development, land reforms, human resource development, and security and public sector reforms. The blueprint seeks to maintain a sustained economic growth rate of 10 per cent per annum from this year and eventually lift the country to medium income status.

The magnitude of bet that the government is putting on innovation is underpinned by the campaign it is waging to establish a Sh72 billion ($9 billion) Konza technology city in Athi River.

Officials say the concept aimed at bringing together a cluster of people to exchange cutting edge ideas, arresting brain drain problem, a common dilemma for African nations.

Dr Catherine Adeya-Weya, an information scientist and a director at ICT Board-Kenya says the technology city will attract most blue chips companies and world class foreign companies into the country. “These companies are known to attract the best brains in the market and once we have them here, there will be no need for anybody to look for opportunities overseas,” she said, citing Egypt’s smart village which has since attracted big brands like Vodacom and Oracle.

The World Science Reports prepared by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) indicates a positive relationship between the level of investment in research and economic development. Experts believe increased State funding of science, technology and innovation can change Africa where 200 million people are in the 15-24 age bracket. “We need a new vision for science in development, one with specific focus on youth and women,” Irina Bokova, Unesco director-general told delegates in Nairobi. But for Kenya, a financing hitch blurs the future of science, technology and innovation even as officials begin to lay the foundation for a knowledge economy.

Officials say the current budgetary disbursement of about Sh135 billion per year (equivalent to 0.54 per cent of GDP) cannot sustain the top-notch innovations envisaged under Vision 2030.

The National Science Council, the agency charged with nurturing innovations only gets Sh400 million per year, a drop in the ocean compared to billions of dollars that successful corporations invest in research and development. African governments have also been faulted for investing little in innovation even after signing up for the Millennium Development Goals set by United Nations to eliminate poverty in the continent in the next 18 years.

The African Union’s council of ministers in 2007 set a financing target of one per cent of national wealth to support science. This threshold would mean treasury allocates at least Sh250 billion (one per cent of GDP) to science, technology and innovation every fiscal year.

“Only Tanzania and Tunisia have heeded the AU call and raised government funding of science, technology and innovation to at least one per cent of GDP,” said Prof Margaret Kamar, Higher Education minister.

At the Nairobi forum, delegates said time was ripe for stem cell education— a controversial subject in the West at the moment — to take route in Africa.

“We can build science culture in our continent if we insist that governments make resources available to higher education, science and technology,” said Ms Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s science and technology minister.

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