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Technology Transfer: Getting Kenyan industries out of the woods

Short story By: John Wanjora
Editorial and opinion



There has been a wide disconnect between research in institutions of higher education and local industries in Kenya, which has for long hindered effective transfer of technology.


Submitted:Jul 6, 2007    Reads: 235    Comments: 0    Likes: 1   


Over the last decade, Kenya had a dream of emerging as an industrialised state by the year 2020. Half way down the road and with a change of regime, our policy makers realised that this was somewhat a false dream, and that what the nation needs now is to wake up and start working. The new target for Kenya's industrialisation has been set at the year 2030, and this isn't far either.

Industrialisation is a way of improving people's way of living. Although this process has many aspects, one of its most outstanding elements is adaptation of modern technologies to improve ways in which people produce their goods and deliver services.

The benefits of taking up appropriate ways of production are many, and include improving the quality of products that are made locally so they can compete effectively in international markets; adding value to products such as coffee, tea, leather and others that are exported raw, so that they can fetch better prices; as well as affording local farmers better ways of production to ensure food security and enough raw materials for industries. With these among other means of creating wealth and employment, people's standards of living improve.

Some of the people best placed to assess and propose solutions to the many challenges hindering the country's industrialisation are researchers in our institutions of higher learning. Undoubtedly, the roots of most industries in the developed world can be traced to inventions that were made in their universities and later transferred to industries for commercial production.

In Malaysia, for instance, evolution of the palm oil industry has benefited much from the many scientific researches that have been conducted on the product. This knowledge was then patented and successfully transferred to their local industries for implementation. Today, much of the edible oils used the world over is sourced from Malaysia.

In a recent innovation fellowship project sponsored by the Gatsby Charitable Trust at Loughborough University in Britain, university staffs were released from usual duties to work in a well equipped and supportive environment. Using their ingenuity to solve real life industrial challenges, the researchers saw the formation of 20 different companies to develop products that were invented in the process. The project also saw the filing of 60 new patents, and 25 licence agreements are being worked on to facilitate commercial exploitation of inventions made during the period. Through research, Britain keeps pushing her industries ahead of the pack.

Ideally, a major difference between Kenya and the West is that while intellectuals out there are busy patenting their innovations, no matter how trivial they may seem, and licensing industries to reproduce them en masse, much of the outcome of projects done locally never see the light of day. One explanation for this is that Kenyan researchers are yet to embrace the aggressive entrepreneurial mindset found in their counterparts in the West. Once they achieve this, they will no doubt have genuine concern for the local artisans who wake up each day to fighting against globalisation with blunt tools.

According to statistics from the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI), out of all the patents filed in the country last year, only one came from a local university. Surprisingly, most of the patent applications came from SMEs and individuals who had little if any external funding. Explaining the phenomenon, Prof. Tom Ogada, director of the Institute, says that patenting of technologies is still an alien concept to most dons even though they hear and teach about it everyday. As a result of this averseness to such crucial requirements for transfer of intellectual properties, few of locally made technologies are reaching the market.

"The impact that efficient transfer of technology could have on the local economy is enormous," says Joseph Nyongesa, MD of GS1 Kenya. "A visit to Kairokor and other down town markets reveals the extent to which the leather industry, for instance, is crying for rescue."

With the recent hiking of the tax levied on export of raw leather, the Government hopes that the country will gain up to 120 times more through local value addition. To achieve this, the Government intends to do among other things, negotiate with Italian shoe makers to set up factories in the country. An ironic parallel between some of the richest business people in Italy and their Kenyan counterparts is that both are shoe makers, observes Mr. Nyongesa. However, while Italians have access to the latest shoe making technology, Kenyan shoe makers have neither the technology nor the capital needed to acquire it.

Something good thing about such direct foreign investment is that besides injecting cash into the local economy and boosting the national forex reserves, it also brings in new technologies. Once locals are trained on how to use such technologies, the process of entrenching use of the said technologies begins, and this spreads wherever the technicians go to work. If the technicians have an entrepreneurial mind, then they will set up their own businesses with the expertise they will have gathered over time. In the end, this helps in boosting the quality of goods or services produced by local SMEs.

No blue print

As Prof. Neil Alford on Imperial College in Britain puts it, there is no blue print for effective exchange of technology from research institutions to the industry. Whichever way one adopts is fine provided the objectives are well defined. Nonetheless, some of the effective ways through which this has been achieved elsewhere and which can be explored in the country include:

Having lecturers take sabbatical leaves to work in local industries.

As Dr. Douglas Shitanda of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) wistfully puts it, "Kenyan lecturers are like pregnant women who refuse to give birth". He explains that despite the immense wealth of knowledge and skills that they command, few local researchers ever seek the opportunity to test the commercial viability of their knowledge in a real industrial setup.

When the same researchers publish their inventions in foreign journals which local SMEs have no access to, they only push the industrial base of the developed world to the next level, while local enterprises thirst for a fraction of the same knowledge to survive.

One glaring infamy that needs urgent redress is the fact that local universities still teach using industrial case studies borrowed from the West for lack of facts on what is happening locally. Unless this stops, graduates from our universities will continue finding themselves only prepared to tackle hypothetical scenarios, but completely unready for the real challenges found in our local industries.

As evidence has shown elsewhere, getting researchers to take sabbatical leave and work in industries, especially in SMEs, gives them an opportunity to learn new realities, as well as develop and transfer appropriate technologies that are needed to bring our industries out of the woods.

Paring up students from complementary faculties during industrial attachment. This has been successfully experimented in Britain among other industrialised countries, and JKUAT could be heading this way soon. When students in technology related faculties, such as engineering, are paired up with their counterparts taking courses in business, they make a formidable force that can diagnose the challenges that an SME could be facing in production and marketing of its goods.

This was almost achieved last year in a project that was funded by the Kenya Gatsby Trust at JKUAT. Unlike other cases where students in the department of Food Science and Post Harvest Technology were attached to blue chip companies for internship, in this case they were sent to SMEs. In the respective companies where they went, the students experienced first hand the real circumstances under which small scale food processors operate. Surprisingly, they found out that most of the processors are only savvy entrepreneurs with little if any training in food science, management or marketing.

In one case where a yoghurt processor had been banned from supplying her products to a local chain of supermarkets over quality concerns, it is reported that a JKUAT student on attachment intervened. She assisted the food processor to meet the required food quality and hygiene standards, and then successfully negotiated with the supermarket's management to lift the ban. Today, the yoghurt processor is busy expanding a venture that could have been dead by now.

Besides rescuing drowning SMEs, a notable outcome of attaching the students to SMEs as opposed to blue chip companies is that all the students involved in the project ended up in better jobs than most of their predecessors. What's more, some of them have become consultants for the SMEs to which they were attached.

As Dr. Kenji from the same department contends, time has come for universities to bring a clear meeting point for the various units that are taught to students. "For instance," he explains, "while packaging is an important aspect of branding and is taught to students of marketing and entrepreneurship, it is also encountered in a number of course units taught in food science. With this convergence of disciplines, there should be clear demonstration of the real value of packaging as a marketing tool to students of food science, while educating students of marketing and entrepreneurship on the importance of understanding what lies inside the packaging".

Indeed, the number and scope of fields that local researchers can explore as their contribution to the country's industrialisation is enormous. Kenya being an agricultural economy with tea and coffee as some of our lead cash crops, the country yearns for affordable technologies that could enable locals add value to such products before export.

As we saw in the case of Malaysia's palm oil industry, this is a sure way of spawning successful local industries based on what Kenya does best - farming. A laudable move in this area is the recent licensing of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) to commence research on genetically modified cotton as a step towards reviving cotton farming in the country. Thriving cotton estates will see re-emergence of cotton ginneries and eventually, revival of the textile industry to take advantage of trade opportunities such as AGOA.

Elsewhere in the world, universities and research institutes are taking up the role of corporate laboratories. Forward looking companies, especially in pharmacy and electronic industries have outsourced most of their research and development (R&D) activities to institutions of higher learning with much success. However, the language for accessing corporate funding for such R&D projects is "commercial viability". If the proceeds from commercialising an idea will surpass the cost incurred in developing it, then it will most certainly attract corporate funding.

First published in the July 2007 issue of Small Medium Entreprises Today magazine, Nairobi, Kenya.

John Wanjora





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