Winter is Here- Innovate or Die

By Lewis Sakwa

I have written before on this forum. War is an incentive to creativity. In the struggle to survive, men tend to wield their last energies. They, like the others before them tie up the last effort with the Samsonic act- the last resort. In such an act, it is either a win or perish situation. This has been my perception of the times and experiences at the University. Tragedies alongside others. Acts of valor from the last resort, triumph and songs, disasters and regrets. But importantly this has built up a more coherent society weaned far too early and exposed into the harsh realities of life but growing stronger in resilience, with power and focus.

This is the story of the University Of Nairobi School Of Engineering. It is the struggle to gain momentum, to be a model school to the rest and provide an alternative path to the training of students going into the market. Unlike other places where there is a constant supervisory authority hovering over the student, it a norm to give liberty to the University of Nairobi scholars. This has led them astray occasionally but has kept them right on course in the struggle to maintain and keep a legacy.

But in the early 2000s, JKUAT brought a war right on the doorstep of The University as far as engineering training was concerned. It seemed to have a thorough and meticulous way of dispensing the course that the rest of the students noticed. Well, it can be agreed that it has been awhile since the sporadic rise and the anticlimax of the hype. Specifically speaking, at the centre of it all was the question as to whether UoN trained better Electrical Engineers than JKUAT. It was a talking point especially amongst high school students who were faced with a choice to pick on either JKUAT or UoN. Then, apart from the name and the fame which has kept and still keeps other colleges save for Engineering, Medicine and of course Law truth is JKUAT WAS a better institution. They delivered. And then, they played their part in the skies.

However upon reflection, there is a new outlook. There is rejuvenation. There is will power. I speak for the Department of Electrical Engineering. Five years ago, it was a dull place without proper facilities and probably an unrevised syllabus. Learning data structures; 1000 slides in 45 minutes once a week in computer science class was the norm. Yet out of it we have been made. Withered but alive, perplexed at the expected rate of absorption but still soldiering on.

Reflecting on the first year students writing 'Code' in the second semester of their study makes me believe in the line of education we are adopting right now. And if JKUAT was considered better than us by the students of those days because they wrote 'code' in those day at fourth year then their best days are well behind them. These days our young children are coding properly. Jokes aside.

The Department has taken serious steps to ensuring that the training is well advanced and is on course as far as the Kenyan dream is concerned. I am convinced that Kenya's time is well behind the innovation that we are witnessing in the Engineering Department. And soon, given the right incentives, this place where education was born for the nation shall be heartland that controls the economy of Kenya.

I am convinced also that it is not just the students; it is the inspiration, the culturing and the bringing up of these scholars that is going to take this to another level. Well, it may be said to be a sinusoid but at the moment we are headed to the peak. We are gaining momentum and we seem to have overcome the reliance on the 'Reputation'.

Earlier during the Applied Electronics class, we had a discussion on sanctions. Yes, sanctions. It is a humble opinion of the dean, Prof Mbuthia that generally a country is set for death when it stagnates technologically and whatever is done can have no impact unless it resets its options to look forward to mass production of finished goods within its territory and for itself. The country must seek self sustenance. It must embrace technology and face times as they come in order to improve the welfare of its populace. You are a slave as long as you need something from a person who needs nothing from you. You set yourself free when you decide to dive...

Yet what does the story of JKUAT and UoN teach us? That we have to embrace a curriculum that is suitable for the industrial production. That we are not safe at this point in time if at all there is no single government owned hub, no serious research faculty funded by the government in the technical areas of concern- which points out to the fact that the government itself is a simple straight forward machine only interested in foreign goods. It is also a pointer that when no one is complaining, then it so seems that even the engineering fraternity is satisfied with the ongoing. Which of course points to disenchanted players of the industry.

In the face of adversity and when we are threatened with upcoming players in our zone, lest we want to cede ground to them, then we have adopt a new mechanism through which we can reclaim our position.

I wrote on another forum about the backlash of engineering a country on a foreigner's foundation. I detailed my thoughts about the state of Engineering in this country and why the buy Kenya policy, made from Kenya ideals were important in the stability of this country's foreign exchange. In that article to a reputable Engineering Journal (which never got published) I sought to understand the role of professional bodies especially in the development of the young engineers. Most specifically I challenged the Institution of Engineers of Kenya (IEK) to lobby not just for the welfare of the professional engineers but also for the improvement of the Engineering practice bearing in mind that there was need for an advisory to the highest offices in the land not to just establish commissions but to actually fund innovation through institutions of higher learning. In my reasoning, which may have been the point of rejection, I inquired if there was a possibility of forming yet another professional body of Engineers that could actually press the government to institute such proceedings. My article never saw the light of the day but here we are.

In the twist of that argument, there was the question of expenditure outside of our economy in the quest to buy building material and the returns of foreign exchange on the projects of the investors and lastly the ultimate expenditure of these monies on goods outside. I sought to understand if the trend would not come down on us. Then the currency was trading at ninety bob for a dollar.

It is not therefore a surprise that at the moment, there is no economic boom as few years ago. The consulting industry which has served as the source of income for the trained engineers in the country has taken a slow turn. The profits are lower, the money is lesser and the industry requires another dimension. It is my hunch also that the contractors are not enjoying the same advantage as they did a while back. Sanctions and lackadaisical approach towards the development and expansion of the consulting industry leaves us questioning as to whether what we do in these firms is all we were trained to do as engineers. And whether you are from UoN, JKUAT or Moi, we all feel it in our bones. That there is something that is not sufficient in the approach we give to innovation. That there is more than what is being done that could be done. That this nation and the institutions of higher learning should most importantly train and provide avenues through which we can expand the writ of Engineering. Otherwise, for a practical experience that is rewarding and fulfilling, one would have to seek yet another avenue, most favoured being South Africa.

What we forget is that ideas are borne in the places where there is brainstorming. Not over coffee tables. Not in ties and suits and procedures. Ideas are born in the faculty. Ideas must therefore be encouraged to come forth through the institutions of higher learning. This cannot be done outside of the universities. Research programs are important but most demeaning is the value attached to them especially as far the engineering industry is concerned.

With the donation from the African Development Bank, we have witnessed a shift in teaching patterns and the practicality of the laboratory sessions to the industry. Well, some people are set to lose. Yet truth is that most middle man colleges that give certification for training engineers couldn't come close to the academic angle that is reinforced in the academic environment. The control laboratory at the University of Nairobi has completely removed the need for the PLC training done by any firm in the country at a herculean cost. This much we know... but we are a skeptical country with a paper loving attitude.

If in a sheer turn of donation of well little less than 150 million Kenyan shillings equipment, the direction of the Kenyan industry can be shaped, what of if there was a whole research institute allocated some development kitty to build this country technologically?

Methinks this is a conspiracy from top to bottom. We are cowards, afraid of facing the truth of our nature- and that is that we are too self -interested that we would rather die than empower other people to help us chart a rescue path. Otherwise, we could be hearing about the much hyped Kenya School of Engineering- and not rooting for the absorption of young men in the already existing consultancies, pay them twenty K and work them off to the pub. If this country was serious, and the engineering fraternity was unite in leading the whole fray into another age of industrialization, government owned agencies like KENGEN , KETRACO and even Kenya Power would have very important connections with the faculty and the multibillion profits they accrue could be used to sustain the development of a Kenyan Driven Engineering Market. But then the question is, who shall speak loud enough for them to heed? Has anybody ever spoken? Is there any man remaining who can speak? Or are we fooling around with the future of our people. It is a shame that not even the engineering societies are concerned with this. Especially when we are concerned with money right in our pockets- we wouldn't say a word.

In the neglect of innovation because of personal interest, few things are bound to happen. The market withers and dies and foreigners take over, as the situation is in the Heavy Power Engineering Projects right here or the less unknown person invades the market and offers alternative solutions that are cheap and well thought out. We may own a name, a reputation and all that comes with it- but we cannot control Depressions, Inflations if we cannot embrace innovation. For it is the only tool we can use to chart a new course of freedom. As the old adage goes, "No one is really free", not even you.