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It’s time for Africa’s Silicon Savannah to wake up

Friday August 16 2019

TECHNOLOGY

We live in a knowledge and data-driven world. Tech-savvy and data sovereign nations chart trends. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

SHEM OCHUODHO
By SHEM OCHUODHO
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Kenya is reputed to be Africa’s Silicon Savannah.

But is that reason enough to sit on our laurels, celebrate and relax? When we wake up we’ll be at the bottom of the pack. Especially in this fast-paced fourth Industrial Revolution, when time waits for none.

We live in a knowledge and data-driven world. Tech-savvy and data sovereign nations chart trends. It is no wonder the fierce salient tech-war between today’s biggest global economies is 5G revolution. And why should Kenya or Africa by extension pay attention?

There are many who believe Kenya is a ‘sleeping giant’. Last week, I participated in two Think-Tank Roundtables that were as good as any, and some of these issues were discussed.

Should Kenyans of goodwill focus more on the ‘sleeping’ or ‘giant’ part? One of the roundtables was convened by Multi-Sectoral National Dialogue Contact Group in conjunction with the academia.

It brought together some of the country’s finest brains, among them Prof Chacha Nyaigoti, Chairman, Commission for University Education, Prof Ratemo Michieka, Secretary, Kenya National Academy of Science, Industrialist Dr Manu Chandaria, Prof Khama Rogo who leads a major World Bank Group health initiative in Washington DC, and Dr Constantine Wasonga, Secretary-General of the University Academic Workers’ Union (Uasu).

DIASPORA

It was abundantly evident that the country hasn’t made the best use of its intelligentsia.

Neither do we have the barest minimum of data about ourselves that we need for proper, evidence-based planning.

I am not sure, for instance, how many counties would know with precision, at the fingertips, the number of bags of maize consumed by its citizens per week, or the number of its professional engineers living and working in Mombasa.

Even less known is the true number of Kenya’s diaspora population – beyond the guesswork of three million that has been used for the past 10 years.

And they aren’t in the census plans, despite their importance to the economy. Informal sources claim assets held by the Diaspora population are enough to clear the country’s debt, estimated at about Sh6 trillion.

The knowledge economy is real. It is no coincidence that tech firms - Microsoft, Alibaba, IBM, Facebook - have dominated the global scene, and Amazon.com is the wealthiest.

ACADEMIA

Yet, we have no structured repository of knowledge. One needn’t look any further than how neglected the National Archives or public libraries are.

Equally worrying is when a university professor resigns to contest the MCA seat. The self-censorship and suppressed academic freedom makes matters worse.

In addressing our most basic challenges such as the Big Four Agenda, corruption or even extra-judicial killings, one would think academia would be at the forefront evolving practical solutions.

Yet, there are scholars to whom even mention of these words is anathema. Is it that what Prof PLO Lumumba has been singing about is true? That those with ideas have no power to implement, and those with power lack ideas? Aren’t the scholars themselves equally complacent?

KNOWLEDGE WEEK

Vision 2030 anticipated a knowledge-based economy. Yet, Kenya’s ‘Knowledge Agenda’ isn’t crystallised.

Plans to hold Nairobi’s first Knowledge Week later this year is commendable. Time is nigh to start considering knowledge an asset that is monetarisable.

Kenya has some of the world’s best minds, and it is unfortunate that we haven’t made the best use of them. You find them in places like Tesla, NASA and Boeing, among others.

This is why the unfortunate claim by Michael Joseph that the late Bob Collymore was ‘a white man in black skin’ was unfortunate. Such is the disdain that our leaders brood.

Kenya, and people of colour by extension, are among the world’s finest. GPS and M-Pesa are just but a few of their remarkable innovations.

VITAL DISCUSSION

At the roundtables, I pleasantly learnt there is a forum of former VCs and deputy VCs chaired by Prof (Emeritus) Richard Musangi.

I wonder where we would be if we deployed our finest brains in the most appropriate places.

What I am yet to find are forums for Kenyan professors and economists. In the other roundtable, I was astounded but not surprised to learn Google, Facebook and Huawei individually have more data on Kenya and Kenyans than the government.

This is the time to give meaning to the knowledge economy mantra.

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