The big green Konza Techno City bus came rolling by Taifa Hall on Tuesday the 23rd February, this time in the shape of a discussion on the role of the role of universities in building Kenya's innovation ecosystem. The all-star panel was made up of Eng. John Tonui, the CEO of the Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KoTDA); Mr. Joe Ogutu, director of innovation at Safaricom; Prof. Bitange Ndemo, School of Business; and Dr. Tony Omwansa, the director of the Chiromo C4D lab. Their discussion was preceded by a speech given by none other than the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Prof. Peter Mbithi, in which he discussed the importance of the day's talk in the larger framework of the Nairobi Innovation Week. This is a UON initiative whose 2016 edition is slated for the 3rd-5th August 2016.
The keynote speech was delivered by Eng Tanui. In it, he spoke of how necessary it is to properly link industry and academia for an economy to grow and be successful. The 215 Global Economic IndexReport ranked Switzerland as first overall in terms of innovation, worldwide. (In the same list Kenya ranked 92nd). This achievement can be attributed to a knowledge based economy in which business is about more than making money through the same old methods and universities are about more than publishing papers and reports that will go no further than the dusty shelf of some library. He could do no better than quote Einstein, who said that education is what remains after you forget all that you learnt in school.
In such an economy, knowledge is the most important resource. More and more developing countries have been taking that route. The key is the elusive technology transfer from whatever laboratory or inventor that came up with it to the general public. A good measure of how much technology is actually making its way from test tube to user is the number of patents being registered. In that area, Kenya falls desperately short.
Those who wish to innovate must be willing to disrupt the status quo, as the creators of the taxibooking application, Uber, did. That's what Konza city is all about. It's meant to be the natural destination for students of Nairobi's C4D lab and Fablab, a place where today's learners can become tomorrow's economic movers and shakers. There's meant to be a natural progression from high school science congress to fablab and C4D, and finally to Africa's silicon savannah.
It was a beautiful speech, no doubt about it. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't leave me with some unanswered questions. The managing director of a famous Kenyan corporation once said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. What's being done to instill an innovation culture in the young. Kenyan men and women that are someday meant to fill Konza's towering skyscrapers? Is there any large scale mentorship programme, or series of seminars for high school students in the works? After giving laptops to class ones, are they also going to start them off learning python and C++? Or are we all assuming that culture will always naturally follow infrastructure development like some sort of obedient child? If that is what we're all thinking, then I'm sorry to say the wheels of the bus go round and round, but the big, green, expensive Konza Techno-city bus isn't going anywhere just yet.
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