The Big Four Agenda
In 2017, the Republic of Kenya settled on four priority areas known as the Big Four Agenda: food security, affordable housing, manufacturing, and affordable health for all. These agenda are part of the bigger Vision 2030 development blueprint. At a time when the general elections are less than three months away as the term of the current government ends, decision makers and citizens alike have the noble duty of interrogating the Big Four and reimagining new ones as required to keep pace with the dynamic global technology marketplace. The entry point for any sound philosophical inquiry must be an objective examination of the interventions that should constitute the high-leverage points. Best practices and the trajectory of the discourse among scholars over time are robust reference points for such an inquiry.
Convergence of Scholars on the Knowledge Economy
Scholars converge on the key message that knowledge- and technology-led development is the permanent wellspring for national development in a new world. In the 1970s, Daniel Bell had already predicted the information age in his seminal book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. Once a professor at Harvard University best known for his contributions to post-industrialism, he could today have been writing about a post-COVID-19 society with equal passion, precision, and profound predictions.
In 1987, Robert Solow accepted the Nobel prize in Economics and fired up the watershed moment with a speech stating that the growth in an economy is attributable to new knowledge or technological progress (34%) and increased educational qualifications for the average worker (16%), an aspect of human capital development. The aggregate result is that half of the growth in an economy is knowledge- and technology-driven. Various statements by more recent scholars still feed the mainstream position that knowledge (hence technological progress) is the basis for socioeconomic transformation.
Calestous Juma and Nawaz Sharif have buttressed the game-changing role of a knowledge-based economy in their writings. It is similarly evident that intellectual capital is replacing the inheritance of tangible wealth, such as land, as the basis of significance in society and social mobility in a new digital and borderless world. During the Davos 2021 World Economic Forum, another scholar on the future of the global economy, Klaus Schwab, referred to a new era of “talentism” that is replacing capital as the most important factor of production. Dambisa Moyo, a global economist, also echoes the crucial role of knowledge and technology in economic development, through innovation and research outcomes.
The role of interdisciplinary collaboration and transdisciplinary research is becoming more compelling. During the Technology Planning and Technology Governance Meeting held in Nairobi, 24-27 February 2009, Nawaz Sharif argued for a deliberate step to veer off the beaten path which is the traditional mode of knowledge production: disciplinary, diffused, and partial, to a new mode: transdisciplinary, contextual, and integrated. Drawing on examples from all over the world, he asserted the key message that the share of “technology content” in products is the ultimate game changer for sustainable competitiveness and faster route out of poverty and marginalisation. The desired competitiveness demands of a nation a clear set of policies, institutions, actors, and factors with a well-defined mix of goods and services in which a nation is determined to cut a niche, banking on local production and value addition.
From Knowledge to Application
Knowledge, or the useful lifespan of knowledge at best, is still not sufficient in itself to cause positive transformation through products and services if not applied with wisdom. Human knowledge no longer faces the evolutionary barriers that existed in the 20th century, when Buckminster Fuller came up with the “knowledge doubling curve” whose period used to be measured in decades. For example, by 1900, a century was needed to double knowledge, then 25 years by the end of the second world war, and later estimated to have improved to a year by 2018.
The post-COVID-19 world, thanks to accelerated digital transformation and the Internet, is welcoming a new phase of the curve that will see human knowledge doubling in less than a day. What will humanity do with all that knowledge (and the swelling number of educated youth) if not to positively transform lives and livelihoods? The desired positive transformation needs understanding and technology for effective application. The element of understanding is the central axis because it calls for a different kind of political leadership – one that can appreciate and appropriate the value and significance of knowledge, hence scholars and innovators. Wise application of knowledge must be the ultimate goal.
For a country to reap meaningful gains from knowledge, technological innovation is critical. Technology is application-specific, helping to turn scientific knowledge into practical solutions and material wealth for the society and economy. As Nawaz Sharif has articulated, the share of “technology content” in products and services is gaining prominence as a measure of competitiveness in a world experiencing rapid technological advances. This position can only be reinforced by the post-COVID-19 landscape, which is welcoming a rising uptake of technology products and digital solutions as digital transformation breaks down barriers to knowledge-based collaboration.
Recent Country Examples
For convenience, let’s leave out Europe, being the old home to the first and the second industrial revolution and instead focus on some recent examples. Africa can easily relate with the latter as elder siblings in the common post-colonial struggle for liberation and economic transformation. Japan, China, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Brazil are among the country examples that have used technology to gain structural transformation or leapfrog barriers to economic transformation. These countries make it appear self-evident that aspiring to be an innovation-driven economy is a high and rewarding calling reserved for visionary leaders. Such leaders take research and development (R&D) seriously since they have the understanding that human capital supersedes other forms of capital as the most important factor of production.
The private sector also enjoys a conducive policy and regulatory environment to support R&D under such political leadership. Asked why such leaders overlook the traditional tangible agenda in their prime pursuit, they would quip, “How many tonnes of low-value products (e.g., bulky farm produce) do you need to sell to buy an aircraft?” This is a perfect example of focusing on high-leverage points in a systems approach.
Technological innovation is the ultimate frontier of competitiveness, a pillar that singularly makes a huge difference to nations – natural resource constraints notwithstanding. Among the twelve pillars of global competitiveness, the World Economic Forum has referred to technological innovation as the pillar that does not run into diminishing returns, unlike the other pillars. With the rapid population growth taking place in Africa, this is a key point to note because the emerging society cannot rely on the limited land resource as the factor of production to meet their diversified and growing needs.
Governance of Research and Development
The city-state of Singapore presents a suitable example in the socioeconomic transformation narrative accelerated by knowledge- and technology-led products and services, with R&D as a critical focal point. The R&D expenditure of Singapore rose from 0.85% of the GDP in 1991 to more than 2.6% by 2008. As Reuben, Wong and Lim have written on Singapore: 50 years of Science and Technology, the mantra of Singapore changed from survival and pragmatism in the 1960s – 1980s, when the country lacked a well-educated workforce, to an innovation-driven metropolis of excellence in water technology, port management, and petrochemical ecosystem today. By 2010, the innovation-driven growth agenda of Singapore had converged on four fields of science and technology as the most promising to the new age: nanotechnology, biotechnology, space science and technology, and ICT. The “smart nation initiative” in Singapore’s 2020 Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) Plan is complete with the mantra “to be a knowledge-based economy which thrives on innovation and enterprise”.
The Singaporean example of leapfrogging structural barriers to economic transformation cannot be divorced from the change of strategy to focus on knowledge-driven areas of competitiveness, complete with heavy investment in R&D to cultivate an innovation culture while promoting “intellectual germination” through entrepreneurship and research.
It should be noted that Korea, Israel, and several countries in Europe have been recording 3% - 4.4% of their GDP as R&D expenditure. This is in a sharp contrast to Kenya and most countries in Africa, which are still recording less than 1% of their GDP as R&D expenditure, far below where Singapore was in the 1990s. Expenditure efficiency matters even more, hence making a strong case for frugality, priority setting, and eradicating corruption when handling allocated R&D funds.
Reimagining the National Innovation Agenda
As a bold demonstration of resolve, Singapore formed a Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) to give strategic direction and help gain a competitive advantage while exploiting comparative advantages. (South) Korea features a similar example in prioritising and institutionalising science and technology. The recently established Kenya National Innovation Agency (KeNIA) under the Ministry of Education is akin to RIEC. KeNIA is suitably positioned to help guide the country on the path to knowledge- and technology-led socioeconomic transformation.
In Africa, Kenya has been ranking high on technological readiness and innovation with a well-educated and youthful techno-savvy demographic. The ongoing Presidential Digital Talent Programme for young STEM graduates has benefited hundreds of university graduates through structured mentorship to be market-ready with skills. This skills gap is evident in a recent finding in 2021 that less than a quarter of young Kenyan college graduates are ready with skills for the job market.
The Konza Technopolis concept needs to be actualised to meet its delayed but high promise of making Kenya the Silicon Savanna. The Kenya Space Agency is a key stakeholder in promoting the utilisation of the new frontiers in space science and technology, as already demonstrated through its ongoing space technology projects with Kenyan university – including the operational space weather project hosted at Taita Taveta University.
Kenya’s Vision 2030 still has many unmet targets in key areas, notably tourism, agriculture, mining, manufacturing, health, housing, transport, water, and energy. There is a rising number of Kenyan graduates from local universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) centres. There is also a growing constituency streaming in from abroad with advanced postgraduate qualifications. This welcome development is already a good sign of the rich potential in intellectual capital. This rich human capital, however, gets wasted away due to poor governance with a dearth of adequate opportunities to increase their absorption rate into the major productive sectors of the economy.
Governance remains a weak link. If firmed up effectively, sound governance should help allocate resources wisely and activate the mechanisms and efficiencies needed to promote the preferred path of knowledge- and technology-led transformation.
The existing policies, institutions, and human capital in Kenya seem to have met the minimum requirements to enable the leapfrogging of barriers to socioeconomic transformation and realising the national long-term development blueprint. Sound political leadership is the remaining critical step needed to help allocate resources where gains would be maximum while fighting resolutely against inefficiencies and wastage of resources.
The discourse supports having Kenya’s next big agenda focused on knowledge and technology development with increased budgets and efficiency measures for research and development (R&D) spending. Revising and extending the Vision 2030 to capture new development priorities in the face of emerging realities and technological megatrends should be a top priority.
Based on the lessons from the shared country examples, the next government’s conversation on a robust national innovation system should take on a more resolute trajectory. The following focal areas promise a faster technology-led take-off in the digitally connected post-pandemic world.
1.A sound policy and regulatory framework is the support structure for transformation processes. The government must formulate, review regularly, and enforce a set of policies that can help raise the technology content for a carefully selected mix of goods and services Kenya should cut a niche in through competitive local production and value addition for export, closely working with the key institutions and actors that determine production levels. The export-led strategy in Vision 2030 thrives on competitive products and services for the international market.
a. Research and Development (R&D) – the demonstrated value of intellectual capital in the reviewed countries informs increased R&D allocations and strict measures against corruption to help create innovative solutions within budgets. R&D is the brain of the transformation process. The outcome will be cross-cutting positive effects on all the sectors of the economy. Universities, Research Institutes, and TVETs are of key interest here. Every year, more than 80% of high school graduates qualify to be candidates for TVETs in Kenya. The rising number of well-educated Kenyan youth and prospects for fresh graduates of the new competency-based training should help sustain the pool of human capital required for high-tech solutions. Mentorship and diversification into cutting-edge research areas such as nanotechnology and biotechnology should be encouraged in the R&D framework to claim relevance in the global technology marketplace.
b. Smart Agriculture and Agroprocessing – the solutions from the lab arising from R&D need to be taken to the land to enhance zoning plans and increase yields in agriculture, the mainstay of Kenyan economy. Upstream and downstream technology solutions are needed to aid in sustainable land management and reducing wastage, either on the farm and or due to post-harvest losses; utilising analysis-ready or decision-ready space technology and mapping products e.g., democratised Earth Observation data and services from Digital Earth Africa (DEA) and similar providers, and web-based mapping solutions for decision support; technologically leveraged access to markets for farm produce; modelling and monitoring with early warning systems for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation; and agroprocessing for local value addition. Technological interventions in agriculture and livestock management should in turn lead to food and nutrition security through enhanced production.
c. Tourism and Hospitality – targeted training and technology should be applied to digitally map, document and integrate tourist attraction sites and hospitality services for enhanced discoverability across the country; time is also ripe for deploying immersive technologies/extended reality for e-tourism (exploring innovative applications of virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality). The resort cities envisioned in the Vision 2030 blueprint, such as Isiolo, have a lifeline in this agenda.
2. Prioritising Digital Talent Building and Digital Transformation – more technological capacity development efforts should be directed at building communications infrastructure and digitalisation of systems, equipping training centres with technology infrastructure, and developing the skills necessary for addressing the production requirements of niche goods and services for the international market.
Expanding e-government services for increased efficiencies and minimising corruption, ensuring end-to-end transparency using blockchain technology, instituting a digital cadastre and a modern national addressing system to improve transport and logistics as well as transparent and integrated management and administration of property including land and mineral resources, and ensuring quality virtual spaces for borderless networking in education and training, are key items of the digital agenda. The efficiency of the Port of Mombasa, for example, depends on digitalisation as the nervous system for a maritime single window system and enhanced turnaround times.
The health sector is a key beneficiary of digitalisation through telemedicine and efficiency gains from integrated records management, complete with geolocation parameters. COVID-19 has proven that deploying geospatial mapping technologies is key to sharing the visual and location-based intelligence needed for sound public health management besides the better-known application in natural resource management. Business models that promote vertical integration thrive on digitally enhanced connectivity, hence enabling diversification and synergy of roles to promote outcomes within a given line of products and services – a perfect recipe for growing the economy by empowering diverse sector players.
The enabling environment expected from good governance will attract the private sector to invest more in technology and technologically enabled businesses, transport and logistics included. With these crucial steps, more public-private partnerships (PPP) can be secured to accelerate development outcomes.
These proposed areas are viable and qualify as points of reflection for the next big agenda for the socioeconomic transformation journey of Kenya in particular and Africa in general.
By Nashon Adero
The author is a lecturer at Taita Taveta University, Kenya, a research consultant, a youth mentor, and a geospatial and systems modelling expert with ESIPPS Africa.