Kenya is at the Cutting Edge of Innovation, Technology Transfer & Enterprise Development

Published on 28th April 2020

Kenya is undergoing immense growth and transformation in innovation, technology transfer and enterprise development. This can be attributed to, among other factors, the Country’s robust innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem with a large and growing number of local and international investors active in the ecosystem, a robust ICT infrastructure, effective innovation policies and a growing population with access to the latest technology. Available data shows that Kenya’s innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of the most established in the African continent with a growing number of companies and venture capitalists or angel investors looking to invest in start-ups. 

Kenya’s innovation outlook remains impressive. In the 2019 Global Innovation Index, Kenya was ranked as the second most innovative country in Sub Saharan Africa, after South Africa and position 77 globally. As per the latest available statistics from the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI) and the Africa Region Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO), in 2018, Kenya had registered the highest number of innovations putting it ahead of all the other countries under the Harare Protocol with 286 patent, 177 industrial design, 178 utility model and 4,866 trademark applications at the national level. There were over 628 patent, 81 industrial design, 20 utility models and 2,008 trade mark applications designating Kenya. This has had a positive outcome including creating an unprecedented interest in local innovations and start-ups by companies, innovation hubs and accelerators from around the world especially from USA, Britain, Germany, China, Japan, India and Singapore among other countries.

Universities and research institutions continue to play an important role in positioning Kenya as an innovation and entrepreneurial hub. For instance, in addition to the Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Centre, Kenyatta University is in the process of putting up a Techno Park for technology transfer and research output. The University is also establishing a Maker Space and Light Manufacturing Facility that will entail high-tech workshops open to the public. The University of Nairobi has established a software incubation centre (the C4DLab) and a Fabrication Lab. The Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) offers both in-house and virtual incubation services to startups for up to 6 months. Strathmore University hosts iLab Africa, a centre of excellence in ICT innovation and development as well as iBiz Africa, a business incubator that carries out the incubation and entrepreneurship theme of iLabAfrica. When completed, the Konza Technopolis will play a bigger role in harmonizing university research output with government and the industry within the triple helix model of innovation. Further, the Kenya Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (Kenya- KAIST), modeled after the Korean Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (Korea- KAIST), is set to be established at the Konza Technopolis through a partnership between the Kenyan government and the Republic of South Korea. It will produce highly trained human resources in science and technology to cater for the various needs of the nation in science and technology.

Universities and other research institutions can play a more dominant role in the production, transfer and application of knowledge in order to foster economic and social development. In many countries around the world, universities are realizing huge returns through commercialization of research and innovation/technology (including returns on technology transfer, equity shares in start-ups and technology licensing). In the 2018-19 academic year for instance, Stanford University in California USA, generated $2.5 billion in revenue from sponsored research. For Kenyan universities, it’s not a question of how, but when to adopt this framework for revenue generation especially with reduced capitation from the national government. In a triadic approach through partnership with the government and industry, research results from the universities can be quickly identified and effectively converted into applications. This will help in bridging the valley of death currently existing between academia and the industry. Furthermore, it will enhance the development of a portfolio of highly qualified advisory services in the field of technology funding, technology valuation and technology marketing to ensure that research and innovations particularly from these institutions make it to the market.

Collaborations and partnerships with both local and international institutions/organization need to be strengthened. In so doing, Kenyan institutions/companies, especially universities and SMEs will have a better access to funding from local and international organizations, particularly through the formation of consortia within the academia and business. For instance, Dedan Kimathi University of Technology, Karatina University, Chuka University and the University of Saarland in Germany have partnered and won a grant from DAAD aimed at supporting the development of an entrepreneurial culture within the four institutions through a project dubbed “Developing Entrepreneurial Universities in Kenya, ‘‘DePUK”. The project, already under implementation, engenders innovation, applied research, entrepreneurial training, business startups and the establishment of a Science and Technology Park. mLab East Africa, a consortium of four organizations that aims to identify, nurture and help build sustainable enterprises has also won grants including from the World Bank's infoDev program. The Kenya National Innovation Agency (KENIA) runs the National Innovation Award and the Leaders in Innovation Fellowship (LIF) Programme, a collaborative programme between KENIA, the National Research Fund (NRF) – Kenya, and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAENG)-United Kingdom. The programme is implemented under the umbrella of Kenya-UK Newton Utafiti Fund Programme through which innovators get access to high-quality skills training focused on commercialization of their innovations.

Outside universities and research institutions, the number of start-up incubators in Kenya that nurture and support SMEs and startups to grow, commercialize and upscale their businesses is on the rise. Some of the existing ones include NaiLab, The Hub East Africa, iPHub, Villgro, MEST Incubator, the Mara Launchpad Incubation Center, KeKoBi, LakeHub, mLab East Africa, Cisco Edge incubation centre, iBizAfrica and iHub among others. The Nairobi Securities Exchange has also set up an incubator programme that aims to prepare young companies for bond issuance or eventual listing on the bourse. Multinational companies are also setting up innovation and research labs in a bid to tap into the expanding Kenyan culture of research and innovation. For example, the Nairobi THINKLab, launched by IBM Research – Africa in collaboration with the Kenyan government develops innovations around big data analytics, cloud, mobile technologies and the next generation of government.

The growing number of high profile events in which innovators showcase their innovations for instance the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) whose 2020 global gathering was scheduled to take place in Nairobi in March this but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Young Scientists Kenya National and Technology Exhibition, the Africa Innovation Festival organized by Kenyatta University and the Nairobi Innovation Week‏ organized by the University of Nairobi among others all point to an expanding innovation culture in Kenya. Over the last five years, Kenyan innovators have won innovation awards and grants amounting to millions of shillings from international organizations including the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme, Google Impact Challenge, Kenya Catalytic Jobs Fund supported by UKAid, the Kenya Open Innovation Challenge powered by JICA, Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) competition chartered and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the German Africa Foundation and the Open Innovation Challenge for Young Entrepreneurs initiated by UNDP and UN Women among others. Many start-ups keen to utilize the vibrant Information Technology space in Kenya are coming up every year. In 2019, South Korea’s Ambassador to Kenya Young-Han Choi announced that several South Korean firms will be setting shop in Kenya to leverage on the Country’s vibrant ICT infrastructure and expanding technology space.

In the light of Covid-19 pandemic which negatively affected the global supply chain, there has been a well-coordinated response plan by various institutions, counties (like Kitui and Laikipia), manufacturers and SMEs to develop the most essential items required for the prevention, treatment and management of the disease including Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), like coveralls, masks and visors – that are crucial for frontline workers including doctors and nurses. For example, researchers at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) are developing the Point of Care (POC) Rapid Diagnostic Kits to scale up Covid-19 screening and surveillance. Many SMEs are also creating assembly line production to produce masks which are in short supply.  With this innovative approach by SMEs, KEBS should provide the instructions and approved designs/prototypes that meet international standards for manufacturing and then validate the efficacy of those products. Some of these items like masks do not require high end expertise to assemble and can be made using locally available materials. At Kenyatta University, engineering students have within a span of two weeks, developed a low-cost open source ventilator that can be used by Covid-19 and other patients with plans to manufacture the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) already underway. This demonstrates our potential in innovation, the key driver of industrialization. We therefore need to come up with a robust industrial transformation programme by developing and implementing progressive policies and incentives to encourage manufacturing for both local and international market. There is also a need for enhanced Research and Development, human resource capacity building and institutional reforms.

The government’s role in promoting research, innovation and enterprise development cannot be over-emphasized. A lot of resources have been channeled through flagship programmes like the Uwezo Fund and other agencies including the Kenya National Innovation Agency; the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation; the National Research Fund; the Youth Enterprise Development Fund and the Industrial Development Bank among others. There is also a comprehensive policy framework for science, technology and innovation that can be adopted by county governments.

Vision 2030, the country’s economic development blueprint aims to transform Kenya into a newly industrialized, middle-income country providing a high-quality life to all its citizens by the year 2030. As we navigate the long and winding path to industrialization, there is need to learn from other jurisdictions. In Germany for instance, both the federal and state governments play a pro-active role in promoting research, innovation, technology transfer and enterprise development within and outside the country. The government of the Free State of Bavaria, through the Bavarian Research and Innovation Agency has been exemplary in fast tracking and expanding this position. The Agency, as the single point of contact in Bavaria helps higher education institutions as well as small and medium-sized enterprises acquire funding. It also offers advice and support on all issues of patent exploitation, technology transfer, protection of technological developments and a wide range of innovation and entrepreneurial support services including marketing and supporting innovators with innovative ideas but lack the wherewithal and special know-how to take their ideas to the next level.

In the Indian subcontinent, there are over 5 million ready for hire developers located in popular cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata engaged in creating websites, web applications and mobile applications for small and large companies across a wide range of industries globally. This was something unheard of 20 years ago. Kenyan developers have demonstrated a similar potential. We achieve what India has achieved through synergy, proper coordination and networking as opposed to the current situation where science, technology and innovation sector in Kenya appears fragmented.

The future lies in innovation, technology transfer and enterprise development. Together, we can spin ideas into gold for prosperity.

By Mwenda Patrick Gatobu

Managing Director, IP Innovations Limited.


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