State looks the other way as local innovators suffer

Kenyatta University students with their ventilator at the  Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Centre on April 11.  PHOTO | FILE

Photo credit: NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The most-talked about innovators at the time were at Kenyatta University, Dedan Kimathi University and Numerical Machining Complex.
  • Patents, too, are owned by the institution, hence an individual scientist cannot break away and do business without approval.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 in the country in March, there was a flurry of activity among state and non-state actors seeking solutions to stem the spread of the disease.

As the state searched for resources, researchers and artisans came up with local solutions to the emerging global health crisis.

The most-talked about innovators at the time were at Kenyatta University, Dedan Kimathi University of Technology and Numerical Machining Complex, who came up with five ventilator prototypes that could now be helping Covid-19 patients breathe by pushing oxygen into damaged lungs.

There was excitement across the country at the possibility of using locally made ventilators.

But the excitement has degenerated into despair, as the men and women behind the life-saving devices ran out of capital and parts to make the machines.

Fight the pandemic  

The government, which has since received billions of shillings to fight the pandemic, has not been of much help. Some of the cash and materials brought in by organisations and other well-wishers cannot even be accounted for.

“Dedan Kimathi, for example, has challenges acquiring some electronic components for the programmable parts of the machine, which can only be sourced from China. The team we asked to build a prototype said they haven’t got the money they require to assemble the materials they need,” says the Ministry of Health ad-hoc committee chairman Martin Owino, a biomedical engineer.

The innovators told the Saturday Nation that they face innumerable hurdles, which have cut short their dreams.

But this is not a recent problem. In July 2017, the Kenya Industrial Property Institute journal published an innovation by a team of scholars at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, granted a patent for shoe polish made from the blackjack weed, whose seeds are known for clinging to people’s clothes.

The team, led by Dr Peter Ogoti, then an assistant lecturer at JKUAT’s biochemistry department, had applied for the patent in August 2014.

The Saturday Nation caught up with Dr Ogoti, who has since lost his enthusiasm for the project due to hurdles in commercialising it.

“Bureaucracy in the universities discourages both inventors and investors. Yet as an individual, I cannot be at the centre of decision-making, unless the (university) Senate charts the path,” said the biochemistry lecturer.  “It is disappointing that projects are implemented depending on who is at the helm. If you’re not politically correct or they’re simply not interested, there’s nothing you can do as an innovator,” he added.

Often, contracts signed between scientists and the institutions they work with on matters of intellectual property are governed by restrictive policies, more-so where the research is funded by the institution –as was the case with the blackjack-based shoe polish.

Patents, too, are owned by the institution, hence an individual scientist cannot break away and do business without approval.

Dr Ogoti says he will never again consider partnering with an institution. “Writing innovative ideas for funding is what I do now. I can make jellies or shavers from plants, plus many other ideas, on my own,” said the demoralised scientist.

He had high expectations that the university would use its muscle to push the government and the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (Nacosti) for support to industrialise and push the product to the market to compete with international brands.

Submitted the final samples

If institutions that handle billions of shillings can be bottled, how about individual developers and especially jobless youths?

 Anthony Muthungu, who has beaten many odds to become a household name, has about 20 innovations under his name, but has only patented two and nine are copyrighted.

The latest on his list is a resuscitator, which he says would come in handy for Covid-19 patients. Together with a colleague, Mr Peter Mbiria, they have submitted the final samples as ordered by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and are awaiting its verdict.

Mr Muthungu’s dream started back in primary school when he tapped energy from a pit latrine using dry cells to power his radio. It worked and he never missed his favourite radio programmes until he got electrocuted and was hospitalised.

Now an information and communications technology (ICT) expert, and a graduate teacher, he has been around the world, competing with bigwigs and bagging awards, earning him the ultimate satisfaction he sought – that of building a brand.

He now wants the second best thing, to commercialise his gadgets. “The government is mostly playing public relations with this industry that has the potential to turn around our economy. Someone has to work extremely hard. I have broken my back and made sacrifices to be recognised,” he told the Saturday Nation on phone.

Youthful innovator

It is only after the youthful innovator got acknowledged internationally that he caught the eye of the ICT ministry, which took him in for incubation in 2018 through Huduma WhiteBox, a programme based at the ICT department, which hones the skills of innovators and links them with financiers.

Like a number of his colleagues, Muthungu expected loans or grants from the government to advance his dream, but that did not happen.

“Currently, he is trying to commercialise his Totosci Rafiki USB cable, which he developed from damaged cables he bought from Kenyans.

While his inquisitive nature and subsequent exposure have been his launch pad to success, those in the villages are still waiting – in vain – for their big break.

Calvins Odhiambo, 22, a mechanic in Kericho town made a car using a 150cc engine of his Kingbird motorcycle and scrap metal. The four-wheel “jeep” has a fuel gauge, headlights, indicators and other parts that he designed.

But he has no clue of how to push the idea further.

“If I had better training,” he says, “I would have come up with something bigger and better.”

Another inventor, Hilary Chirchir, from Kericho County, tapped wind to generate power in August 2012, spending just Sh20,000 and subsequently earning Sh7,000 per month from supplying 14 households in his neighbourhood with power at a cost of Sh500 each for unlimited use. The power also ran his poshomill. But authorities caught up with him.

He learnt that what he was doing was illegal, as independent producers are not allowed to supply electricity directly to consumers, without approvals and a licence from the energy sector regulator.

In 2017, government officials, who had learnt about the project, toured his home, and “promised to help me get a licence”.

“But I later pulled it down, as the promise was not forthcoming.”

Elkana Ajowi, a Kisumu-based networking expert, came up with an app called Sinepay ECM (Electronic Commerce Monitoring) to regulate competition between online market platforms and traditional shops. The system can monitor sales made online and remit the data to the Kenya Revenue Authority or any other tax collecting agencies.

He mooted the idea in 2014 when he realised that traditional retailers were under threat from online traders who didn’t have to tax customers because they themselves weren’t paying taxes. The app has had no takers, though.

Innovators say that some of the requirements are quite costly. Mr Muthungu blames the leadership. “Just as leaders organise agricultural shows, they should also organise innovation exhibitions,” said Mr Muthungu.

In terms of regulation, there are 21 steps required— including approval from the National Treasury — before innovators are allowed to enter into deals with counties. With burdensome restrictions in place, analysts say the country pays a heavy price, as products and services fail to make it to the market; new businesses go unformed or fail to grow; new jobs are not created and new sources of taxes are needlessly forfeited.

“It’s hard to estimate how much money Kenya loses due to poor innovation-related policies, but it may be between five and 10 per cent of GDP,” says Prof Reuben Marwanga, the chairman of the Kenya National Innovation Agency (Kenia).

Some say the ICT ministry is not doing enough to ease things in the industry for young innovators.

Jackson Wambua, who oversees policy and research at the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, says the government needs to walk its talk.

“The ICT ministry has been urging the youth to be innovative, yet the government is unwilling to set aside resources to help them,” he says.

Technology and innovation

He says that “the standardisation procedures are tedious and costly,” and “digitisation of industries is the way to go” if the manufacturing sector — one of the pillars of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda — is to realise the growth the president promised by 2022.

But while innovators struggle to actualise their dreams, the laws and institutions that ought to facilitate them are moribund.

Kenia is supposed to develop and manage the National Innovation System, with Nacosti, the regulator, ensuring quality in research in science, technology and innovation. The National Research Fund (NRF) is tasked with raising funds from government and other sources to support research and Kenia activities.

“These organisations are not working as they should because Kenia and NRF are stuck in government bureaucracy. Three years after appointment of their management boards, these agencies are still not functional,” said Prof Marwanga.

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