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A chat with a digital beggar and reforms in higher education

Sunday April 13 2014

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At Uhuru Highway by University Way, a woman carrying a toddler on her back approached my car and asked for money to buy food for her baby. 

I had rolled down my front window to enjoy the evening Nairobi breeze, but as I looked out towards her, she had already leaned on the window. Caught between a rock and a hard place, I started looking for some change in the car.  There was none. 

I said to her “Honestly, I do not have any money”.  She wittily responded “you can Mpesa me something ndiomtoto akule” (so that the baby can eat). In my mind I was asking myself, “Who could this digital beggar be?”

Traffic was not moving and she made sure she exploited the opportunity by staying ahead of my thoughts.  In my hesitation, she told me not to fear that she would get my number.  She was charming and witty.  Her command of English and Swahili was excellent, perhaps better than mine. 

The perfume she wore was not ordinary.  She may have just borrowed the hopeless dress and head gear she wore.  Kwani uko na shida gani, hata nikisema baba mtoto ndio ametuma pesa. Si ni nyinyi tu ndio mumesaa hii mtoto? (What problem do you have even if I said the father of my child has sent me money through Mpesa?  Aren’t you the ones who sired this child?).


“Listen,” I said to her. “I have one thousand shillings of which I want to give you one hundred but I have no change”.  She tells me,  “Lete nitakupatia change (Bring, I will give you change)”.  I give her a one-thousand shilling note when abruptly, cars began to move.  She reaches into her bra and pulls out a wad of notes as I drive 30 metres ahead.  She catches up with me and declares she has only eight hundred as change.  I said to her, “Bring the eight hundred”.

Momentarily, her face looked disturbed when she asked, “Ninakuonanga wapi (where do I often see you)?  I quickly responded, “Mimi ni mtangazaji na KBC” (I am a broadcaster with KBC).  She retorted, “Ni kweli na Mungu akubariki” (It’s true and God bless you).  Every question she asked, the more she distanced herself from being a beggar.  In my rear view mirror I see her move on to her next victim.  The car behind. 

A few metres ahead by the traffic lights, a sea of students is crossing Uhuru Highway.  There are not less than five universities along the University Way-Koinange Street axis.  As businesses take flight from the Central Business District (CBD), they are being replaced by universities.  It is virtually becoming a university park and the digital beggar could possibly be a student who had just rented a baby.

Perhaps we are not occupying their idle time and energy over and above the academic content. The trouble is that investments on university education, especially in arts subjects, could be having a negative return on investment (ROI) when new careers such as petroleum engineer or technician in the new, emerging oil services sectors are unavailable.


Less than 24 hours later, I am seated on the 16th floor of the Marriot Hotel in Boston.  It is within the MIT campus.  I can see the Charles River Basin, and beyond are the famed Harvard and Tufts Universities.  It is another park with several other significant universities like Boston, Bentley, Brandeis and Colleges like Boston College within the vicinity, but equally there are several research labs.  

Each has some focus as in Technology (MIT), Business (Harvard), Diplomacy (Tufts) etc. Large corporations like Mitsubishi have Electric Research facilities to not just occupy the students, but give also them the necessary, practical experiences for life after university. At the University Park at MIT, the redevelopment of a large new area is going on.  It will accommodate an industrial park that will commercialize their research. Start-ups here are natured by Universities and funded by the Government.  It is where jobs are created.

Universities across the US are building their Konzas.  Sample this: Illinois Science and Technology Park, University of Maryland Research Park, University of New Orleans Research and Technology Park, Research Triangle Park (Raleigh-Durham) (largest research park in the world and the model we studied to design Konza).  There are Innovation Parks in virtually every land-grant university in the 50 states in America. Universities, private sector and the Government work together to create value and sustainable university financing.


By and large, students in the US are kept busy by working in the many opportunities created by the universities.  Students are the biggest source of cheap labour. They require no retirement benefits, no social security, and no medical cover. Instead they gain experience that prepares them for industry. 

In contrast, African universities rely on the exchequer to fund their operations. The only supplemental income comes from what we refer to as Module II or parallel programmes.  The pressure is driving them to admit students with lower grades.  Our universities have become dens of tribal enclaves.  Research funding in some cases is determined not by competence, but by whom you know. Virtually all our universities do not attract independent research funding.  The little research that is done, it is never commercialized to create new funding sources. 

I am aware that University of Nairobi and Egerton University have added value to several agricultural products, but they have never commercialized any of their products.  Egerton’s yogurt has never gone beyond kiosks in Nakuru.  A breakfast cereal product developed by University of Nairobi’s Upper Kabete Campus has never left the lab 20 years later as we spend billions of shillings importing breakfast cereal from Europe or the US.  We export bananas and berries to be dried in Europe and made into cereal for us to import.

In the Economist of 5th April, the Schumpeter column has a story, Flower Power: The forces reshaping one of Africa’s most successful industries.  It is a rather sad story where smallholder family enterprises are being driven out of the market by large multinational enterprises.  In Schumpeterian theory, an entrepreneur is one who emerges with new combinations (a process of continuous discovery that ceases only when you settle down to do business) to stay ahead of the competition.


The story reveals no new combinations as the theory suggests.  What is new are requirements, ostensibly set out by the consumers, that horticultural companies provide greater Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and create more value to European consumers. Initially, the debate centred on horticulture transportation and reduction of carbon footprint.  This in my view was hubris meant to confuse African exporters in favour of Eurocentric enterprises using old boys’ networks to gain advantage over competition. 

In a digital world, there is much data to prove that none of these arguments can hold water, if the analysis were done on the basis of incremental damage to the environment or CSR to the local people.  This is where universities have failed us to the extent that we make our case based on opinions.  Even with opinions, the government should protest these manipulations that give advantage to existing large enterprises.

There is a strong correlation between the wealth of nations and the number of patents registered.  It is for this reason we need to foster a closer relationship between universities, governments and the private sector – the triple helix – doing things together that will help propel African economies to greater heights.  We must leverage research data to make informed decisions that will not just change the lives of people but also understand their needs and ways to support African renaissance.

As President Barack Obama once said, “the Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

Dr Ndemo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter: @bantigito