Politics seems to be the only thing that happens in Kenya most of the time; but a look at the journal that registers innovations paints a picture of a nation whose creative minds are working hard to shape the world of science and technology.
It is published monthly and it is one of the clearest proofs that Kenyans are not sitting on their laurels as the rest of the world generates revolutionary scientific ideas.
Go through the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (Kipi) journal of any month and you are likely to come across a new idea developed locally that is about to change the world.
It is in that journal that Kipi publishes ideas that have earned a patent, meaning their owners have illustrated that they are fresh concepts which need legal protection against copying.
In the July journal, for instance, three of the six patents granted by Kipi originate from Kenya, two of which are owned by Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).
In one of those, a team of four inventors was granted a patent for shoe polish made from the blackjack weed whose seeds are best known for clinging to people’s garments. The team had applied for the patent in August 2014.
In the second, three people from the university earned recognition as the owners of an idea that involves making yoghurt using mostly pawpaw juice.
They had also applied for the patent in 2014.
The third patent announced in the July issue is jointly owned by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) and Kenyatta University. It was granted to three inventors who had come up with an insect repellent that can alter the behaviour of insects to prevent them from spreading diseases. After a three-year wait, their dream of being patented has now come true.
Other ideas recently patented include an ambitious proposition that electricity can be produced using a spring and two revolving masses. The owner of the patent, Mr Joshua Langat Kipngetich, hails from Kericho County.
“When disturbed it will bring about continuous rotational motion as these two forces try to attain balance which it was previously set,” says a brief in the journal about Mr Langat’s spring. He had applied for a patent in July 2014.
Then there was a patent earned in June by a team of three people sponsored by Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology. The patenting of their formula for keeping pests off stored grain ended their two-year wait.
A statement in the Kipi journal said the substances in the team’s pesticide “give 100 per cent protection to maize against damage by the larger grain borer and weevils for up to six months in a single application”.
Most other ideas granted patents by Kipi between May and August relate to innovations from Belgium, United States, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, France, among other countries.
So, what does it feel to be granted a patent? What comes next?
Lifestyle caught up with Dr Peter Ogoti, the lead inventor in the idea about manufacturing shoe polish from blackjack.
Dr Ogoti, currently an assistant lecturer at the JKUAT’s biochemistry department, is optimistic that after the patent, it will now be possible to mass-produce the polish.
“Now that we have the patent, it’s a matter of checking with partners or collaborators from wherever they are so that we can do a pilot study about mass production of the bio shoe polish,” he said.
“After we establish that it can be produced en-masse, then we can liaise with various investors in counties to produce the polish, which is better, superior, easy to manufacture and which is eco-friendly,” he added.
It was by accident that Dr Ogoti discovered that if you dry a blackjack plant (leaves and stem even without the black seeds) then grind it and later mix the powder with a chemical to milk out an extract, the resultant blackjack product possesses stain characteristics.
It was in 2009 as he was working on a project for his master’s degree when he made the discovery.
After he had got an extract from the plant, and as he sought to find out the medicinal value of the plant in combating sleeping sickness, he had his eureka when part of the blackjack extract fell on a slab.
“When I looked at it, it was shining. Then I said, ‘Can I try to see whether it can be polish?’ Then I tried with my friend’s lab and we said, ‘Let’s try to see the next day whether it’s corrosive or not.’
“The next day I noted that this extract has potential of making shoe polish, and that is when I was able to relay to my supervisors about the potential of that plant and I had to write a proposal for which I was given Sh900,000 [by JKUAT] to do the work,” he narrated, flashing back to his unexpected finding in 2009.
His supervisors included Prof Mabel Imbuga — who would later become the university’s vice chancellor — and Gabriel Magoma and Esther Magiri. In the patent granted for the polish, the three are listed as Dr Ogoti’s co-inventors.
The abstract announcing their patent says: “A shoe polish composition comprising Bidens pilosa (commonly known as blackjack or garden weed), paraffin wax and petrolatum component is disclosed. The composition is presented in form of paste and is particularly meant for shoes or leather care.
The major component of the product paste is dichloromethane extract of the weed.”
Dichloromethane is the substance used to squeeze out the extract that is needed from the blackjack, much like a detergent squeezes out a stain from a cloth. The dichloromethane is later separated from the extract to leave a pure substance obtained from blackjack.
The pure extract is then mixed with petroleum jelly and paraffin wax — which Dr Ogoti said is readily available in shops — then boiled to about 90 degrees Celsius after which it is poured to containers to dry up. At the point of boiling, different colours of the polish can be made.
“When it is in the boiling process, the first batch you make is the black one. But when you want to come up with different colouration, it’s a matter of adding some other dyes based on the colour you want,” Dr Ogoti said.
Compared with other shoe polish products in the market, he said, the one from blackjack possesses unique qualities.
“It doesn’t crack when exposed to air. But if it’s exposed to sunlight, it can melt like others. But if it’s in a cold place, even if it’s open, it cannot crack,” he said.
“In terms of dust, it doesn’t take much compared to the other shoe polish. In terms of longevity, this one, being environment friendly, doesn’t even burn the leather. It will give long life to leather compared to the one already in the market,” added Dr Ogoti.
And on the potency of the chemicals it has, he noted: “This product is not toxic. It is not poisonous, compared to this one which is already in the market. I tested its toxicity using mice. The organs like the liver and kidneys were not affected. That means it’s not poisonous.”
The hopes for mass production of the product, he said, now lie in the hands of the university.
When he spoke to Lifestyle on Wednesday, he was optimistic that the institution will convene a meeting to chart the way forward after the grant of the patent.
Even the registration with Kenya Bureau of Standards, he said, will happen as a joint effort.
“We’ll work as a team; the university being in front; others to follow,” he said.
Asked how much it would cost to set up a full-fledged plant, he said: “If it’s within one county, almost Sh1 billion can make a big industry with all the facilities and be able to produce this en-masse.”
If the dream of mass producing the polish is actualised, Dr Ogoti foresees improved livelihoods.
Having grown up in a farming village in Manga district, Nyamira County, he knows only too well the menace the blackjack poses to farmers.
With the new use of the weed, he hopes that farmers like those in his home village will find a new cash crop and in the end there will be a cheaper shoe polish in the market.
“It’s affordable because this weed grows everywhere. It doesn’t require fertiliser. It just grows with other crops,” he reasoned. “Up to 100,000 jobs can be created countrywide.”
He also clarified that it is not the black seeds that are most useful in the polish making process.
“The leaves are the main ones which are used to make that extract. But you’re not limited to removing the seeds. You can use the whole plant; just dry it and convert into a powder form and then you can soak into organic solvent,” he said.
Times without number during the interview, Dr Ogoti stressed on how the blackjack stands to transform Kenya. Asked whether any other crop can produce an extract that can make polish, he answered to the negative.
“At the moment, what I understand with my discovery, this is the one I know,” he said.
The blackjack has, in a way, transformed his life. It was the shoe polish discovery that contributed to his being hired at JKUAT.
When he made the finding, he was a master’s student at the institution’s main campus in Juja. The novelty of his idea earned him a spot at a show in Nairobi in 2009 where, the idea drew much attention. He leveraged on the attention to push his case for being hired.
“This innovation gave me a plus to get a job at the university in 2010,” he said, adding that it also helped him secure a full scholarship from a German agency to pursue his doctor of philosophy degree from JKUAT, which he completed in June.
His relationship with JKUAT started in 1999, two years after sitting his KCSE at Itibo Boys High School in Kisii County. At JKUAT he studied biochemistry and chemistry, graduating in 2003. He returned to the same institution a year later to pursue his master’s and it is in the course of obtaining his degree that the polish discovery happened.
A father of three, Dr Ogoti started off his employment at JKUAT as a senior technologist then became an assistant research fellow before becoming an assistant lecturer, his current post.
The patenting of his shoe polish project is expected to inspire more Kenyans to be innovative.
He has a message to would-be inventors: “Never lose hope. Patience pays. No matter how long it will take, at one time you’ll be there. I never thought that a small guy from a very poor background, would at one time be able to discover this.”
Other inventors who have appeared in this year’s Kipi journal include Mr Mwitari Paul Gitobu who, in the February edition, was granted a patent for producing cement.
“The invention provides an environmentally friendly method for making cement material. More specifically the method pertains to the production of cement using low energy inputs,” said the journal.
Other inventors listed in February are Wycliffe Chisutia Wanyonyi, Paul Mwanza Shiundu, John Mmari Onyari and Francis Jackim Mulaa.
Their patent published was about an environment friendly method of cleaning fish and animal skins. Their innovation is owned by the University of Nairobi.
''This method produces fish leather with more patterns unique to fish skin created through the descaling process, which in turn provide beauty totally different from that of general leather,” the journal reads.
Still in February, innovators from Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology were also honoured. Muhamed Swaleh and Maurice Vincent Omolo were recognised as the inventors of a smokeless jiko.
Another innovator, Patrick Kiruki, made a mark in the March journal with his project of a portable, foldable toilet that can separate solid and liquid waste and store them in biodegradable bags.