What you need to know:
- Poor absorption into careers related to their training has forced many graduates of biotechnology to branch to other unrelated fields.
- In the medical field, the most prominent area of biotechnology is the production of therapeutic proteins and other drugs through genetic engineering.
There is growing concern over widespread lack of job opportunities for graduates of biotechnology courses, causing worry among students about their future and the relevance of the course in Kenya’s job market.
Poor absorption into careers related to their training has forced many graduates of biotechnology to branch to other unrelated fields which offer them a livelihood.
Despite the high grades required for qualification for admission into the course and the intensity of the training, there are only a handful research institutions that offer jobs to these graduates, leaving thousands jobless many years after graduation.
When Simon Kaindi joined Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in 2012 to pursue a course in biotechnology, he was elated. He had researched on the course and found that it was one of the most reputable around the world, he was therefore confident that a degree in biotechnology would present limitless opportunities for him in the world of research.
However, his graduation in 2015 marked the beginning of an endless search for a job. He has lost count of the number of applications he has sent to prospective employers.
The course was introduced at his former university in 2010. In a class of 40, only two got jobs in research institutions while the rest ended up working in fields they had not initially trained for.
“The chances (for biotechnology graduates) are few in the country because bio-tech has not been embraced. We had to look for other opportunities,” says Kaindi, who interned briefly at the Kenya Medical Research Institute.
Other universities that offer courses in biotechnology include the university of Eldoret, the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, Egerton University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
“I think the universities that teach these courses are taking us for a ride. University opened my mind, but in terms of practice, I feel my five years were wasted,” laments the 30 year-old Kaindi, who is currently working as a medical representative at a pharmaceutical company.
Japheth Kipkurgat, a graduate from the University of Eldoret, has a similar story. Out of a class of 41, only one person ended up working at a research institution.
“It has been so hard to get absorbed at various research institutes. Majority of those that I graduated with in 2014 are working in fields unrelated to biotech,” he says.
In most universities, there is a decline in the number of students pursuing courses related to biotechnology due to the lack of job prospects, with most continuing students opting to drop them for other courses such as clinical sciences or nursing, medicine or diploma courses.
Patrick Okoth, a lecturer at Masinde Muliro University, says that the buck stops with the policy makers to seal the gaps in the education sector.
“I think there is a need for a paradigm shift, we could solve some of the problems besieging humanity, for instance diseases like Covid-19. Students have the expertise and knowledge to find cure for diseases and generate vaccines. These students can get rights from parent companies and produce them locally,” observes Dr Okoth, a lecturer of molecular biology, computation of biology and biometrics.
Dr Kennedy Pkania, head of the biotechnology unit at the University of Eldoret, observes that most of the universities have the capacity and resources to support the training of students but blames lack of capabilities in research institutions.
“Most students have interest in this course, but most research institutions lack facilities, limiting them from absorbing these students. However, there is an increase in the students’ enrolment because technology is the future. At master’s level, a student who did a general agriculture degree course must specialise in a course on biotechnology or molecular biology which is also biotechnology,” explains Dr Pkania.
Professor Hamadi Boga, the principal secretary for Crop Development and Agricultural Research, told Higher Education that biotech and other innovations can help address most of the challenges in the country but regrets that there are several hindrances which lock out many graduates.
“The private sector still operates in a traditional way, most of the innovations have not been adopted. We are only seeing the prospects in ICT, but other technologies like biotech have not been embraced, thus most of these students are not absorbed,” Prof Boga explained.
He regretted that there are misconceptions associated with biotechnology, citing fears that technologies like GMOs, have negative impact on human beings. He pointed out that biotech graduates can further their studies to enable them to compete with peers around the world.
“We are in a competitive world with few opportunities in our country. A degree is considered basic, so I want to encourage these graduates to pursue further studies and get a master's degree then a doctorate, so that they are able to get opportunities elsewhere that are not locally available.”
In Kenya, research institutions that offer opportunities in biotechnology or microbiology include the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation, Kenya Bureau of Standards, National Museums of Kenya, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, Kenya Forestry Research Institute, Kenya Marine Authority, hospitals and other entities involved in research work.
Biotechnology is a form of technology that utilises biological systems, living organisms or parts of this to develop or create different products.
In the medical field, the most prominent area of biotechnology is the production of therapeutic proteins and other drugs through genetic engineering.
Agricultural applications of biotechnology have proved the most controversial with some activists and consumer groups calling for total bans on GMOs or for labelling laws to inform consumers of the growing presence of GMOs along the food supply chain.
“Africa missed out with the agrarian revolution, we missed the industrial and chemical revolution and are likely to miss out in this fourth revolution of synthetic biology revolution with biotechnology. We cannot develop as a nation without embracing these technologies,” Prof Boga observed.