In 2006, the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology pondered how best to get computers for students. After consulting them, the university decided to make its own laptops, coming up with the Taifa brand laptops. These were designed and assembled at the university’s Industrial and Technology Park in partnership with Chinese company Inspur.
When the Jubilee government announced plans in 2013 to roll out digital learning in schools, it provided the much-needed market for mass production of the Taifa laptops. By 2017, the university had supplied 7,329 Taifa laptops to public primary schools in 29 counties through a contract between the university and the government.
The development and final launch of the laptop in 2014 was a landmark for the country’s ICT sector, setting the stage for manufacturing of computer-based gadgets in Kenya.
For a long time now, there has been a public outcry that research and innovation emanating from universities in Kenya do not penetrate to the communities to help deal with problems bedeviling the populace.
Scinnovent Centre director Dr Maurice Bolo says: “The general problem with Kenya’s innovation system, including research going on at universities, has always been that invention is not turned quickly enough into concrete products for the market to stimulate the country’s manufacturing sector.”
However, there are positive trends taking shape. One is the emergence of industrial and technology parks sprouting up in different institutions of higher learning. These institutions are mandated to conduct research and transfer their innovations to the society to help steer development.
If well-funded, JKUAT’s Industrial and Technology Park and University of Nairobi’s Fab Lab are on a steady mill to turn around innovations systems at the universities.
These two centres have demonstrated the potential roles of science parks in deepening ties between universities and the society and promoting entrepreneurship among the students. They could spark further growth for Kenya’s economy.
Since its inception, the JKUAT-based Nairobi Industrial and Technology Park has been at the core of facilitating innovations and research findings into sustainable enterprises. It provides an incubation hub in key areas, including ICT, biotechnology, agro-processing, agro-machinery, and electric and electronics.
“The linkage between universities and industries were weak then, because most of the major industries were not located in the country, and this limited the moving of products from the universities into the market,” says park director Dr Suleman Okech.
The university has the mandate to train and do research, he says, adding that the park can now provide facilities and resources that help innovators and researchers to develop products in full commercial scale.
The tech park is modelled to work with individual innovators and groups, including the university’s researchers. “Once these groups of people come up with the idea, it goes through scrutiny to gauge if the idea is viable for commercialisation,” Dr Okech says.
“At the park, we decide if the individual innovators can continue working on their ideas with support from the park, or we get them venture capitalists to buy the idea.”
To date, the JKUAT park has commercialised 15 products to respond to the immediate needs of the communities. These include the Shujaa tractor, which was developed by the faculty of agriculture. It promotes mechanisation of small pieces of land, reducing dependence on animal draft power or human labour. The tractor can plough five acres a day with a fuel consumption of 5 litres per acre.
“The cost of ploughing per acre (with the Shujaa tractor) is Sh1,500, which is equivalent to the cost of ox-ploughing, and is much cheaper than the cost of an ordinary tractor, which charges Sh3,000 to 4,000 per acre,” Dr Okech says.
The new tractor is efficient and affordable to farmers. It will boost agricultural production in the rural set-up, which in turn will help fight food insecurity.
Another innovation, a multi-purpose fruit processor, is a way of preventing fruit wastage during high season. It can make up to 30 litres of juice per hour. The product is already in the market, especially in Ukambani regions, where farmers struggle with loss of mangoes during high seasons.
And finally, the School of Biosystems and Environmental Engineering has developed micro-biogas equipment that provides communities with special small biogas plants as an alternative source of energy for domestic cooking.
This is thanks to a partnership between JKUAT and Rehau Home Gas, a biogas plant system that efficiently runs on cow dung designed for rural and semi-urban households. Already, over 20 business entrepreneurs from nine counties have been trained on how to use the technology.
Livingstone Mulamu, JKUAT’s head of project for the Shujaa tractor, says: “The park is taking the initiative in promoting innovation systems by linking researchers and innovators to share ideas and protect the intellectual property of the innovators. This helps put money in the hands of innovators.”
Mulamu says these innovations are supporting Vision 2030, which recognises SMEs and industrial and technology parks as important means to fast-track the manufacturing sector.
The milestones at the JKUAT Industrial and Technology Park mirror those of UoN’s Fab Lab — a creative hub for engineers, designers, innovators, and business people.
Dr Richard Ayah, the director of UoN’s Science and Technology Park, says: “The Fab Lab offers an environment to assist people with good ideas by helping them acquire intellectual property rights and pitch their ideas to investors.”
Although the lab was set up in 2009, it has turned out products and services that are now in the market, including start-up companies from the lab, some of which have won national, regional and international awards and honours.
For example, in May 2012, Fab Lab student Peter Mbari won a NASA International Space Apps Challenge award for his ‘Bit Harvester’. This remote monitoring system uses a global system for mobile communications technology and microcontrollers to collect data and information, including voltages, wind speed and current on wind turbines located in rural areas. The information can be stored in a centralised database and used by energy provider companies to monitor turbines.
Although the lab had to address some of these challenges, such as the lack of equipment at the lab, Dr Ayah expresses disappointment with the government, which he says seems less interested in locally made products than in buying products from abroad. As a result, Dr Ayah says, the government has “not put in place policies to support local technology”.
Nevertheless, the two science parks have proved their value in building bridges between universities, communities and industry. Dr Bolo says for this interaction to be strengthened, more emphasis should be on innovation and entrepreneurship at the universities, and the need to focus more on other actors, such as the civil society, who can provide platforms for dialogue.
He blames the weak linkage between the academia and industry to lack of a forum for dialogue between private and public sectors, attitude and organisational culture among universities researchers, and lack of value proposition to the private sector, which makes them uninterested in invention emanating from the university.
To support innovation systems for development, Dr Bolo says, governments need to fast-track the establishment of venture capital to fund innovation, provide tax credits for investments in research and development, and spearhead preferential purchasing of locally manufactured products through its procurement policies.
In 2015, the government announced the exemption from VAT inputs imported for assembling of ICT devices. This means that all Taifa laptops-imported devices are not subjected to VAT tax.
Dr Bolo calls for consolidate funds to create more robust industrial parks at a large scale. This would spur innovation and entrepreneurship. “Not every university should own their own industrial parks, due to cost implications in setting up the parks,” he added.
Similar parks in other countries have proved their value as a support base for SMEs working on technology. For example, Ethiopia recently launched Hawassa Industrial Park, which has attracted various world-class textile and apparel companies to the country.
Dr Bolo hopes science parks will lead the way in helping Kenya close the innovation-entrepreneurship gap. “This would increase Kenya’s global competitiveness by enhancing locally manufactured technology and encourage uptake of research results by industry and society,” he said.