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Adoption of local innovations, the answer to Kenya’s unemployment

By Kilemi Thambura | October 11th 2021

As Kenya works towards becoming a middle-income economy through implementing Vision 2030, it is imperative that it addresses the rising youth unemployment rates by embracing local talent and knowledge. One of the key areas that remains underutilized is the adoption of local technological innovations by both the government and private sector in the country. Technological innovation meaning introduction of something new or a new idea, method or device which is science, technology and system based.

Adoption of technological innovations not only benefits the country in solving   unemployment but also strategically places organizations to meet the ever-growing changes in customer preferences and to gain competitive advantage, as well as develop products for the future.

According to the Global Index 2017, Kenya is among 17 middle and lower-income economies that perform significantly better on innovation than their current level of development would predict despite limited state support. 

A significant majority if not all of these innovations are youth led meaning there is so much potential for our youth to innovate and provide solutions to the problems affecting all the sectors of the economy. It is obvious that a locally engineered solution is likely to be more affordable compared to an imported one. Local solutions ensure there is skill and knowledge retention for the local people, as opposed to an imported solution that will never let Kenyans have control of what they sell. This means that they are in control of so much data about the country. Unfortunately, the institutions supposed to support and encourage local solutions are more open to foreign solutions that do not accurately address Kenyan problems.

Not adopting solutions engineered right here in Kenya, highly contributes to unemployment which is already at 65 per cent. Locally engineered solutions are key to creation of employment for Kenyans.  For example, a foreign software solution does not guarantee any employment for a Kenyan neither does it guarantee that the solution will suit the unique demographic and challenges of our country thus an imported solution that doesn’t work within our demography and provide local employment.

This means that a software graduate will most likely end-up jobless. A jobless youth means more frustrated Kenyans, more depressed Kenyans, and more educated unpatriotic Kenyans. This poses a high risk of these smart minds getting involved in social vices in the society hence high cost of running the economy. Moreover, the money that Kenyans pay for the solutions does not circulate in the Kenyan economy.

There is so much data that we give away as a country through the foreign controlled software solutions. These data could be used in other products in that they turn around and sell to us or even to economically exploit our country in many ways. When foreigners are giving away their solutions, they still retain the control of the software. The data is right under their control, maintenance jobs, and major support.  Then you keep wondering how foreign countries keep thriving in businesses more than we do. They thrive more than we do because they have so much big data pertaining our country than we do ourselves hence they have ready facts supported by data. Their government has invested in supporting local innovations in those particular countries and eventually supporting them to expand beyond their countries.

Most of the institutions here in Kenya, act as if there is no local potential to address problems that exist. In part this could be out of ignorance or lack of awareness of what exists in the environment. It could also be as a result of attitudes that have entrenched themselves over years, where foreign is seen to better than local.

Lack of conversation among key players is also a challenge. For example; it is extremely difficult for a Kenyan youth with an idea to get the attention of (say) a company CEO in Kenya. As well, institutions of higher learning hardly make the effort to connect their graduates with the market. Often, local youths suffer from lack of patronage of the authorities. In the case of say a foreign youth coming to Kenya, they are likely to have the support of their local foreign mission who would enable them network with the appropriate authorities locally.

It is often the case that a lot of people in authorities do not expect meaningful contribution especially from the youth. Yet when one assesses the successful companies such as Microsoft, and Apple, one finds that they were launched when their founders were in their twenties. Even if our culture bestows the wisdom on our elders to address our problems, Modern problems require more than age. It is perspective, understanding and the courage to address the problems.

Government itself in many ways, does not follow through with its own public stated policies. For example, back in 2015 the president directed that up to 40 per cent Of ICT sourcing be allocated to local firms. There is no evidence that this has been implemented by any of the public institutions.

There is no agency or authority dedicated to nurturing local solutions. By nurturing means being able to evaluate an idea for value, connecting the innovator with the appropriate parties that would nurture the solution. For example, once an idea is found viable, you need partners to test the idea for scaling. As well, a lot of public entities are reluctant to provide such facilities due to lack of understanding of the benefits that would accrue from such engagements.

We need to change the culture and attitude towards local innovations and understand that they have as much potential as foreign grown solutions. A good example is Craft silicon, and M-pesa which kenya has given to the rest of the world. Often, a simple solution would lead to solving a lot of complex issues and having a huge economic impact. For example, in the case of M-PESA, apart from facilitating rapid money transfer and enhancing financial inclusion, M-PESA data has been a foundation for creating further products such as access to credit without going through the strenuous bank processes.

It is often the attitude in public service for people to look out for themselves as opposed to the collective well-being. It is not unusual for many to ask what is in it for them with respect to any proposals they may be handling. This selfish approach has a huge cumulative impact on the collective well-being of the society. You can imagine the number of such decisions made daily across the public sector which is comprised of over seven hundred thousand civil servants and their collective impact.

In order to cause the change that is necessary, there is a need for leadership that is in tune with the times. Such leadership would drive change. The sad thing about the public institutions is that when one-person leaves, their replacement have different priorities that are in variance with those of their predecessors. A new appointed person wants to build their own legacy even at the expense of stalled projects.

As much as the conditions are difficult for the young technopreneurs, some do make it through determination, struggle, and setbacks. It is the high time for those in-charge of the institutions, to support the local innovations in spirit of building the nation.

The writer, Kilemi Thambura, is an Alumni of the Presidential Digital Talent Programme.

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