Innovation- And The Wind Of Change

By Mark Kiprotich & Mercy Nduati

The Economic Slip.
Few things that are abhorred by the current crop of Kenyan engineers- Politics so they say. That that is not one of their great interests. But most saddening, they are closed in their professional shell of the engineering world. A micro scale ecosystem whose survival in a country muddled and as corrupt as the Kenya we live in is depended on the very things that they either shun or claim to fear, That said, I must make sure that these lines I write are fully secured from the after thought of being political sentiments.

However I find it rather compelling to write to my old friends- and young ones as well, lest the time bomb of our professional enclosure comes landing upon our generation. Clear be my intentions, now and in time to come that I shall be joining this fraternity of engineers sooner than some of them imagine. Yet I feel audacious enough to bungle your comfort zone.

I do see the same things they see; in black, white and in shades of grey. They, however, out of the wisdom that comes with ageladen with moderate discretion and discrete moderation choose to keep quiet. Personally, out of impatience and juvenile radicalism that is attributed to young age choose to look and speak about it. So I would as South Africans, beg, and allow me to indulge you.

That aside-
My dear shilling is on a roll- cascading slowly into an abyss of no control. And it may recover, say after one or two austerity measures are put in place by the government. Yet the problem of a fluctuating currency, imbalanced trade and unpredictable fates shall not have passed. Engineers have been key in other economies and are still key in those economies. Mark my words- In those economies. The in house problem shall not have been solved. Fifty years down the line, the private sector is seeing growth. At least they call it growth. Yet as I would think, growth can only be functional if it is fuelled by the people themselves. Huge amounts of suffocating debts only spell oblivion to most of the countrymen. Because as we purport to grow, the external debts are also plummeting. In essence, this is a show of a retarded system of innovation, vulnerable or curtailed by a non-caring attitude amongst those mandated to institute it. One would want to wonder then, whose mandate was it to facilitate the subsequent growth of the home grown economy. Because at one time, to stop the spiraling economy, we shall have to start paying the debts- To do so we must be able to have a balanced trade.

Yet the trade we have still bears the same structure as it did many years back. We happily export unprocessed or semi processed products. Further disappointing, is to note that none of the good men in positions of ability have been able to come up with a local policy that would favor the growth of local industries. This in turn begs the question, how therefore can we be able to stimulate the innovation in the areas of economy?

It is unacceptable that for the last fifty years, we still hang on foreigners to handle our mega projects. I must say that for long and even now I believe the engineering fraternity has failed this country in so far as sustenance of the economy through innovation is concerned.

Time after time, status quo has an implication of peers with common interests who would want to grip what benefits them most. Well, it still is the case here with veterans running the engineering sector for the last fifty years have refused to partake in the development of the profession and in turn, their actions seem to be suffocating those who are meant to join them...

For instance, we have more than 200 consultancies I should guess in the engineering sector that are all fighting to get the projects- the many structural projects around the country. They lack the will and the muscle to fight the multinational entities that are ripping apart the finances of the country. We have scattered resources and are not willing to consolidate them into a powerful entity that could improve our domestic bargain. Every other person tends towards individualistic deals that are now severing the economy of this country.

What our good men forget is that fifty years down the line, Kenya was a young state in dire need of infrastructure and other attached amenities at the expense of all it had. But to rise up the nationhood, it had to slowly develop its own muscle not just to be able to develop the pertinent sectors but also give a wide regard to a home grown economy with an established markets. Now, so late it seems. The whole mess we see here in form of pathetic planning of our cities was done by the veterans of this industry who even at this moment have an astounding grip to it. And if the notions they so widely held then are still borne by them, God save us.

Time has drifted by. Gone are fables of a twenty bob being referred to as a pound. A pound is a whopping 150 Kenyan shillings. Now, delusional or otherwise, these intelligent folk stood aloof and said it was not their problem. The fiscal world did not matter as long as money was there to fund their designs and whether products were procured from this country or not… it did not matter. It was therefore this sort of myopia that has seen us drift this far. Yet out of a simple economic explanation, the more the exports the country bears, the better its economical inclination. And goods that constitute a major part of our trade are probably building materials, heavy machinery and even electronics. Now, even there is an importation of simple tools of our work. Matters made even worse, we even import domestic furniture. We import the automobiles and name them all.

The statistics are up against us. The real estate industry has for the past decade contributed to an almost 10% of our Gross Domestic Product. According to the Economist, this money is not a function of outside investments. The Somali community has been at the fore front of all this. Understandably, this is generated revenue that is directly being sourced from their internal business affiliation and all it does is but to increase the circulation of money in the economy, a good thing in a case where fiscal constrictions are not required. Yet even when we use these revenues as engineers, it does not trickle down to the local industries. We buy cars, electronics, and machinery and so on which require trading in a currency of different form. In so doing, we set an unprecedented imbalance in our trade. The economy comes to its knees at one time or the other.

The economic problems can be handled in one way by the Private sector - Only if their means is not total ripping capitalism. Spicing this with a little corporate social responsibility and investing in new ideas can be an overwhelming stunner. It can rip apart the dominance of some economies albeit for a while on us. It can give us the balance we so badly need. For instance if we banned the use of the 14- seater tramps in good faith and in turn revolutionized the automobile assemblies we could go a long way to reducing our own expenditures- and in a way build our self-confidence. This would as well create more lines of employment to professional in all careers. Actually, much is left to desire when you think of what the private sector advises the government on as pertains the creation of more jobs in the engineering sector.

If we took seriously the University of Nairobi Fabrication laboratory- what the research students have been doing there, cite only The Maker Project, we would be able to test and commission delivery beds, suction pumps and other control machinery for mothers with complete sets of control mechanisms that would see us reduce not only maternal problems in the country but also procure and be able to maintain these expensive tools and this would save us lots of money. This is inclusive of maintenance deals from within. In return, more jobs in this discipline would arise. Yet the laboratory is suffocated, it cannot accommodate as many people as it ought to, neither is anybody interested in the projects going on in the laboratory. How much money has thus been channeled to this public facility? Running private facilities is a good thing, their access to the brilliant minds is another.

Yet even the private laboratories say IHUB and C4D labs are still crowded despite the fact that out of them there may be a churn out of as many proficient analytical strategists that would revolutionize and come up with home based solutions and invigorate the economy. If the government and the private sector alike (read engineering fraternity) was to regard The JKUAT laptop assembly program with the seriousness it deserves, and set in place amicable policies- I trust that the government wouldn't have to spend a whopping 17 billion on laptops for class one children. The assembly line would go a long way to helping us realize how important self-sufficiency can be. But who would bear the scorn of time- who would bear the whips and the laughs from skeptics- That Kenyans cannot do it. Yet this debauchery of thought is even in the very people who are supposed to help us push engineering to another different scale. Look, this JKUAT project is able to absorb most of the Electrical Engineering students, The Computer Science students as well as the Information Technology ones. Yet we underestimate the possibilities of it. In so far as I am concerned, we scorn our own professions when we cease to embrace the possibilities ahead of us and resort to ripping one another for routine industry jobs like in the construction sector.

Chemical engineering is offered and accredited by Moi University yet the engineers have not had much to do except do quality control at government laboratories to check out what other countries have manufactured. Yet simple are the processes involved in fertilizer manufacture. We are yet to build even one good fertilizer plant to cater for our needs. In so saying, the very back bone of our economy is say dependent on foreign industries. Nobody sees that it is absolutely necessary to establish one. But it is imperative that we import tons of them.

What of the power industry? Apart from the entry of Power Hive Limited which is the first of its kind to offer off grid connections, it does not look like a thing in the mind of many entrepreneurs. Neither has it ever crossed the minds of our engineering moguls in the private sector that breaking the monopoly of the giant Kenya Power would hasten our economic gains. In restructuring the power industry to allow a formidable way of cooperation between the private supplier to get back his value whenever he supplies excess to the power industry in an off grid- grid connections, we would pave way for small scale renewable engagements that would in the end revolutionize our speed of development. Truth be told, this would go a long way to enhance faster industrial and residential powering. All these would not only create more jobs in the private sector but would reduce the importation of the heavy machinery and the deployment of foreign companies in all the power projects around the country It would also streamline the power industry and put hold on the cartels- Competition adds value to the consumer you know.

The flip side of the coin
These and many more can only be possible if the relevant players, especially the Private sector led by IEK, which is the major outsourcing field for the policy making offices- would impress upon their members the need to address issues that span across the veil of time. Instead, they are engrossed in the control of "ENGINEERING PRACTICE" which of course revolves around Consultancies and Projects and Money. True leaders institute policies that can possibly outlive them. Yet the general observation would connote something else. Egocentric tendencies that some people in other quarters have chosen to describe them as Means to lock out others from the industry.

The American Society of Engineers plays a key role in the development, professional training and general welfare of engineers. They have a wide range of fellowships for research and doctoral engagements both for the students as well as their members. Their entanglement and obsession is around innovation. Because, they like me, know that innovation spurs growth and builds more jobs and at a faster rate than a static status quo controlled industry.

A weak private sector stands to be compromised. It cannot envision the future and is subject to sabotage. I did for one expect the IEK to stand with University students in the wake of painful EBK ultimatum period. You would want to find the logic- and it is simple- The Engineers Act of 2011 that brings in power the EBK, does give EBK roles to play. EBK is mandated to create a Kenya School of Engineering which would serve as a training ground and bridge to gap not just the industrial needs but also the academic dysfunctions of the educational system. And finally accredit them. If we were sincere about the accreditation, we would find a common ground and at the center of it would be this school of engineering. But like people out there to protect their interests, we have seen a spirited fight of students who if amicably helped to bridge the gap between what they ought to know and what they know, would create a work force worth even exporting. In this ignored lot there lies a vault of untapped imagination, which if tapped would shake even the mainstream disciplines of engineering. That is the source of fear I would guess. And that is why finding their way to recognition is going to be a tough and painful process. We need to realign our policies to reflect reality and not sheer paranoia of a shift in the industry. Change is inevitable; and if the private sector is not capable of pressing forth with sincerity, an act of parliament is still possible that will see the expunging of it out of that act.

I would conclude by saying, it is imperative that we be true to our course- 50 years of intangible results in the outposts of deployment demands explanation. As we shall find out, our immersion in the Present deprives us of the True Perspective.