I was privileged last year to attend the Smart Africa Summit in Kigali. The high-level event was co-convened by the Rwanda Government and the International Telecommunication Union. It featured eight heads of state and government (or representatives), dozens of Cabinet ministers, and hundreds of chief executives of leading local and global corporates, among thousands of captains of industry, mainly from Africa.
One of the guests was the secretary-general of the Third World Academy of Sciences in Trieste, Italy, Prof Romanus Murenzi. Rwanda’s former Minister in the Office of the President responsible for Education, Science & Technology, stunned the participants, when he said: “Of all the world’s scholarly publications, only two per cent are from Africa; and of those, 70 per cent are from only two countries, Egypt and South Africa”.
So where are the Kenyan scholars? I gather that the leadership of the Institution of Engineers of Kenya is in court over disputed elections. On the landing page of the engineers’ website, the president says: “The world is going digital and the engineers shouldn’t be left behind.” One would have imagined that the institution would then be at the forefront of tech-driven elections with products such as M-Vote (for mobile vote), M-Kura or i-Vote (www.i-vote.net) with better transparency, speed, traceability, accuracy and cost-effectiveness. Such, perhaps would help lessen election disputes. Strangely, it is non-technical professionals that appear to spearhead or consider tech-based elections.
To paraphrase Prof Patrick Lumumba: “What happened to Kenyan engineers that we now have to bring Chinese to build our roads?”
Even worse, what happened to our engineers and other professionals that we have buildings collapsing, killing hundreds of Kenyans every year? With agriculture as the mainstay of the economy, one would have thought all our fertilisers would be produced locally.
The website of the Engineers Registration Board shows that of the 1,630 members, only 11 are electronics engineers, and one telecom engineer. I haven’t even talked about systems or robotics engineers. Yet we claim to be a ‘digital nation’. Are the less than 2,000 engineers all that Kenya needs? And with only “12” registered engineers, who are ‘informaticians’, no wonder many call themselves “IT or computer experts”. Is it any wonder that all manner of people get accolades for M-Pesa except the real inventor, former university student Christopher Ondieki! Staff at the Kenya Intellectual Property Institute will quickly tell you “software cannot be patented”. A complete lie. One just needs to engage a good IP lawyer!
In the digital world, things move very fast. I remember the first ever (and perhaps only) “Computers and Law Workshop” held in Kenya. The chief guest, former Solicitor-General Mwacharo Kubo, said we still use some pre-independence laws, while in IT there are new products literally every three months.
ICT is one of the fastest growing ‘industries’. We not only need a code of practice, but also strict compliance. Is there a role for Kenya’s diaspora? Responding in a panel facilitated by Kenyan Zain Verjee, President Paul Kagame said: “Diaspora just needs to be smart.”
Hence the term Smart Diaspora! Of the 3 million Kenyan diaspora, many are professionals, including engineers and informaticians. The African Union resolved that African countries to put two per cent of their national budgets into Science Technology and Innovation. Only Rwanda has achieved that target. And why diaspora? one may ask. It is bound to be the ‘next big thing’ for Kenya. With remittances that stand at $31 billion a year, and double every five to 10 years, in 20 years, they will be bringing in the equivalent of our annual national budget; yes, Sh2 trillion.
The biggest diaspora-led project I am aware of is the Kenya University Project, evolving out of Boston, US. It seeks to put up a technology city/university in Taita-Taveta, a Konza City of sorts. Over 60 Kenyan professors, doctors and engineers have signed up to teach or offer courses through video link, or to run international exchange programmes.
And how many are there in all the 50 states of the US alone? Perhaps, here lies one of the answers to Kenya’s professional engineering and scholarship challenges. And the same goes for other professionals.
Dr Shem Ochuodho is chairman, Kenya Diaspora Alliance.