Institutions of higher learning are playing a major role in nurturing budding innovators in Kenya
In the past, institutions of higher learning mainly focused on the teaching mandate. Recently however, this has changed and most universities have incorporated research and development as well as technology transfer in their curriculum.
One such university is Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). The University, in collaboration with the Ministry of Industrialization and Enterprise Development (MOIED) established the Nairobi Industrial and Technology Park (NITP) in 2013.
NIPT is a Kenyan vision 2030 flagship project wholly owned by the University. The project advances the heritage of offering world class solutions as well as employment creation.
“The aim of the park is to nurture innovations and research findings into enterprises that can be commercialized to help build the economy,” says Dr. Suleiman Oketch, Director of NIPT. The university has set aside a budget that will help researchers and other staff members to conduct research and generate new innovations.
Since that took root, new technologies and innovations started emerging but they needed an outlet to be harnessed into enterprises. “However, since they have not been commercialized yet, they need to be nurtured first so that people can know about them,” says Oketch.
It is worth mentioning that upcoming innovators find it hard to get funding from the mainstream financial service institutions because such institutions generally look at the profit margins and sustainability of such enterprises. “This was what called for the establishment of the industrial and technology park,” reveals Oketch. “In that regard, we look at the best innovations from students and bring them into the park, discuss with them the problems and obstacles that they face, help them to start building them into good products, nurture them, and help the product reach out into the market,” he adds. Through that they start creating jobs and generating income.
At JKUAT, education is pegged on practical teaching and students are required to take part in an industrial attachment before graduating.
Areas of concentration
As a university of agriculture and technology, the park mainly concentrates on six areas which are agribusiness, value addition, mechanization of operations, biotechnology, information communication and technology as well as packaging.
Although the idea of the park came up in 2007, it technically started in 2013. “The university has allocated 32 acres of land for the park that will be equipped with infrastructure including specialized workshops and laboratories, recreation facilities, a technology museum, a conferencing facility and banking facilities with the aim of harnessing upcoming businesses and help them grow.” The park is open not only to students but to every other person with an innovation.
Currently, there are various innovations ranging from small and simple to sophisticated ones that are currently within the park.
To start with is the Taifa Laptop, the first Kenyan assembled laptop. The Taifa is assembled in partnership between the University and Inspur, an international company based in China.
The second technology is a production of tractors that is developed in collaboration with the Society for Research and Technology Institute in India and supported by USAID India. The project aims at facilitating the mechanization of small scale farm operations and value addition thus empowering small scale farmers and youth in particular. “The university did research on the development of small tractors and learnt that there is an institution in India that has been addressing the same issues and we combined forces to pursue the objective.”
The tractors can plough small pieces of land. They will be manufactured by small and medium entrepreneurs around the country where each one will make a different part which will later be assembled at NIPT.
A multipurpose food processing machine is the other technology. It can make juices from different fruits and vegetables. Most importantly, it has a facility that extracts the essential oils for instance from the rose flower. “Currently we are carrying out a pilot study and we have a group in Kibera and Kitui which are already producing juice using the machine,” offers Oketch.
Besides, it has also developed a planting dibble. The equipment has a tube with some blade at the end that is pushed in the soil for planting and also for applying farm inputs such as fertilizer. This makes working in the farm efficient and easy.
Other innovations include the Rehau homegas, miraa wine as well as value addition of sorghum among others.
Harnessing innovations in higher education
Universities are supposed to spearhead the development of a nation by bringing in skilled manpower as well as generating technology.
“Currently, the most expensive commodity across the world is technology,” says Oketch. In particular, X-ray and cancer equipments are costing the Kenyan government a lot of money through importation. These innovations should be developed by the local universities in order to support the economy while creating employment internally.
Oketch feels that it is the high time the government supports local talents as this is the only way the country can participate in harnessing and nurturing innovators to enable them compete against their counterparts in emerging and developed nations. “Innovation does not necessary rely on education, but it is all in the mind.”
The government should create a suitable environment for the innovators to develop their innovations to commercial levels and show appreciation and acknowledgement that something good can come up locally.
However, budding innovators face various challenges one of them being lack of resources. They are not able to develop and market their products and in some cases, they are drawn out of the market by the already developed companies.
Policies and regulations are not encouraging at all. Upcoming companies are required to pay taxes, submit audited accounts all which require resources in terms of money.
“Kenyans are enterprising and have become innovative. All we need is to improve on policies and laws that will encourage that spirit.”