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Innovation: Kenya punching above its weight


Innovation: Kenya punching above its weight

The country is the most innovative in East Africa despite limited State support

Kenya is outperforming most lower-middle-income countries on innovation despite many challenges, a Nation Newsplex review of the Global Innovation Index for the last five years reveals.

Kenya is among 17 middle and lower-income economies that perform significantly better on innovation than their current level of development would predict. Nine of the countries come from the sub-Saharan Africa region and three economies come from Eastern Europe, according to the 2017 Global Index.

Though Kenya does not prioritise investment in research and has experienced sporadic political instability compared with other East African countries, except for Burundi and South Sudan, it is the third most innovative country in sub-Saharan Africa. This is its best placing in the decade that the gauge has been compiled by the World Intellectual Property Organisation. The country is ranked 80 globally, a leap from five years ago when it was at number 99.

Highest share

In the fiscal year 2016/17, the Kenyan Government spent Sh3.5 billion, equivalent to 0.05 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), on research, science, technology and innovation, according to data from the Ministry of Finance.

In contrast, Israel that ranks 17 on the index spends more than four per cent of its GDP on research and development, the highest share. Overall, 10 countries account for 80 per cent of research and development spending, according to Unesco.

Prof Reuben Marwanga, the chairman of the Kenya National Innovation Agency (KENIA), believes that Kenya’s performance is proof that the country is on the right path to becoming an economy driven by innovation. “This is a clear manifestation of the Kenyan spirit. It implies that Kenyans are able to convert whatever little that has been provided into meaningful knowledge and creative products, thus performing above its economic peers.”

The index measures the quality of 81 innovation-related inputs such as research funding, human capital, education, business environment and outputs including knowledge creation, new technologies and creative products.

Among the indicators, Kenya’s highest score of 83 per cent is in the ease of starting a business. The country’s other strengths were in information and communication technologies (ICT) use and services, and credit and microfinance loans.

STEM Courses

An earlier review by Newsplex revealed that only one in four undergraduates studies a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) course despite the large number of related programmes.

Kenya also did fairly well on the regulatory environment, scoring 65 points and ranking 63 globally. Prof Marwanga attributes the good score on the adoption of the Science, Technology and Innovation Act 2013. The law prioritises the development of science, technology and innovation through the Kenya National Innovation Agency, the National Research Fund (NRF) and the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation. The Act also provides that the Treasury should allocate two per cent of the country’s GDP to the NRF, which is far from being achieved.

Most innovative

Switzerland is the most innovative country in the world for the seventh consecutive year, with a score of 68 points, followed by Sweden (64), Netherlands (63) and the United States of America (61). Yemen, which has been engulfed in civil war since 2015, came last at 127 with a score of 16 points.

There is no African economy in the top 50. Leading the continent, South Africa ranks 57 with 36 points. The country did particularly well in domestic credit to the private sector, market capitalisation as a share of GDP, graduates in engineering and science, and knowledge impact. Twenty-five African countries were not ranked due to lack of useful data.

In East Africa, Kenya tops with a score of 31 points. It is followed by Tanzania (28), Rwanda (27), Uganda (27) and Burundi (21). South Sudan, the world’s newest country, was not covered in the study.

Although ranking 19 positions below Kenya in the overall global index, when it comes to particular indicators, Rwanda leads East Africa in the political, regulatory and business environments, ease of getting credit as well as general infrastructure.

With regard to the political stability and absence of violence or terrorism indicator, Rwanda scores 62, placing it at position 67, whereas Kenya got 33, and ranks 118, nine positions shy of the bottom. On access to information and communication technologies Kenya leads in East Africa with 35 points. It is followed by Rwanda and Tanzania with 27 points, Uganda (24) and Burundi (21).

According to 2016 World Bank figures, Kenya has 0.33 fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people. This paints a worrying picture about the nation’s capacity to spur economic growth that thrives on innovation through services such as video conferencing, cloud computing and reliable internet services.

Last year, Information, Communication and Technology Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru pledged to connect all constituencies across the country with Wi-Fi, in an effort to set up Constituency Innovation Hubs, which will enable youths to access tools for innovation.

Prof Marwanga calls for more government investment in research to provide more support for young people to explore various knowledge areas. Africa accounts for less than one per cent of the world’s expenditure on research and development. The continent’s contribution to the world’s research output is one per cent even though it has 16 per cent of the world’s population.

Experts say Kenya needs to invest more in STEM if it is to transform into an industrialising middle-income country by 2030.

Despite lagging behind in research investment and other inputs, Kenya leads East Africa in the overall output score with 25 points. It is followed closely by Tanzania (24) Uganda (17), Rwanda (14), and Burundi (12).

Efficiency

At number 50 globally, Kenya has a higher efficiency ratio of 0.7 compared with Rwanda’s 0.3. This means that despite the minimal inputs from the government and other stakeholders, Kenyans are taking advantage of the little support they get to generate knowledge and creative innovations.

In contrast, despite ranking 14 globally on general infrastructure and second in ease of getting credit, Rwanda’s failure to generate a better output (innovation index rank 121) implies that her citizens are yet to take full advantage of the enabling environment put in place by the government.

Sam Githongori, founder of Fort Innovations, a local innovator specialising in data-driven technology solutions, believes that the future is promising for innovation because young people, especially college students, are coming up with smart solutions to many of the challenges facing Kenyans

“Innovation is an expensive undertaking. The government is lagging behind in promoting it and fostering it among the youth. Innovation hubs exist but they are all privatised. This casts doom to an average young innovator who has nothing but an idea.”

Prof Marwanga acknowledges that despite the crucial steps made so far, a lot more needs to be done. “As KENIA, NRF and NACOSTI, we are still operating under the Ministry of Education and so due to the bureaucracies, it takes a long time to get things done. However, as a country we must create the necessary systems to encourage innovations or else we’ll be left behind by the rest of the world.”