Wednesday 8 March 2017


The reports of the death of innovation are somewhat exaggerated...

This recent article from Kenya inspired this Twiga (Swahili for Giraffe) blogger to write, after a long silence.

The article asks why innovation died in Kenya sometime around 1985, and proposes a number of possible contributing factors. It's really quite insightful and thought-provoking, and many of the points are worth exploration.

As a proxy for innovation, the article cites to the number of patents ("registrations"), and compares registrations in Kenya with registrations in China. The number of patents is a standard measure of innovation in developed countries, but numerous studies have shown that it is indeed a poor measure of innovation in developing countries. See, for example, this (free to download) book published by OpenAIR researchers.

That said, the numbers are even worse than the article provides. On average, fewer than 10 Kenyan patents are granted to local inventors each year.  The total number of Kenyan patents granted to local inventors since KIPI began granting patents in 1994 is below 100. Of those 100, fewer than 20 are still valid and enforceable (i.e., are up to date on annual fee payments). But as pointed out in the OpenAIR research, most innovations and innovators never find their way to the patent office.

So, although one can dispute the measurement selected for supporting the assertion that innovation in Kenya is dead, some of the reasoning behind the assertion is really quite insightful.

For example, the author states that "China invested in Science and Technology with more students taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and reserving 2.05 per cent of GDP going to R&D in 2015 compared with Kenya’s 0.79 per cent (2010 data)." This data for Kenya is quite right - although Kenya has a National Research Fund that is supposed to receive 2 per cent of GDP from Government sources and is for funding R&D, we are not close to actually spending that amount. One reason given for the shortfall is that R&D institutions (primarily Universities) cannot absorb that level of funding. The fund is only a few years old so we shall continue to monitor the level of funding.

The author states "I will never get tired of asking why drama festival winners visit State House and not science congress winners" and, to explain this situation, posits: "One suggestion is that our policy makers are mostly social scientists who see science and technology as a nuisance and boring. This shunning of science and technology experts on the high table starts in secondary school and is reflected all the way to the presidency. How many governors, MCAs, MPs, senators or women reps are scientists?"

This blogger, originally a scientist by training but now a lawyer, shouts with glee ("Eureka!") at this insight. It is so very true, and so very sad.  The current President of Mauritius, Ameenah Gurib, is an accomplished scientist, but is notable precisely because scientists so rarely hold high office, particularly in Africa. Without a doubt the background of a leader influences how that leader thinks and leads, and how various fields are prioritized.

The author questions: "Does the President of Kenya have a Science and Technology policy adviser, we know of political and education advisers?" This blogger does not know of one and requests input from readers. If there is none, what a shame! To truly be the "silicon savannah" or, at any rate, a hotbed of innovation, the top leaders must have close advisors that understand these issues.

We should celebrate the innovation that is occurring here, even while we question the priorities that are set by government.



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John Maina
28 June 2017 at 10:17 delete

A lot of facts in the article were true. That said, one of the major problem in Kenya and other African countries is documentation. For example very few entities know of or ever do an IP audit. I believe there is a lot of innovation in our countries and have interacted with them in the various processes of innovation but we are not using our IP systems and also the very much available technological IP information that is free and in the public domain.