At Independence, most African states shifted their emphasis to industrialisation to accelerate economic growth and development. As such, many government policies have since alluded to science, technology and innovation (ST&I) as the driving factor in the industrialisation process.
If industrialisation is the route to Africa’s economic prosperity, then her people must believe and trust that proper deployment of science and technology can guarantee victory in the war on hunger, poverty and disease.
Five decades into independence, Africa’s attitude towards ST&I remains skeptical. Our leaders seem unsure if science and technology is “the most suitable route” to development. African governments don’t seem to trust their own scientists and would hurriedly seek expertise and technical assistance from foreign countries in search of a second, perhaps more re-assuring, opinion. Ironically, Africa’s top-notch experts, despised at home, are the ones providing that “second opinion” elsewhere in the world.
Similarly, our investment in research and development remains too small and fragmented to spur an industrial revolution. The enactment of the STI Act in 2013 notes that Kenya will invest two per cent of its GDP in research and development.
As a result, it is reported that the allocation has increased from Sh400 million to Sh3 billion. The creation of new institutions such as the National Research Fund (NRF), the Kenya national Innovation Agency (KENIA), the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (Nacosti) as well as the strengthening and reorganisation of key regulatory institutions such as the Commission for University Education (CUE) gives much hope.
The success of industrial growth is hinged on technological innovativeness, market competitiveness and strong intellectual property rights protection. We must regain our social and cultural pride and support our local and indigenous innovations. If there is huge demand for new products, supply will respond because the profit motive will drive artisans, scientists and engineers.
In recent years, we have witnessed an upsurge in counterfeit products, mainly from China, which are effectively killing upcoming industries and small businesses locally. If we do not address the attitude and self-image of our citizens then governments should stop imagining that they can win the war against counterfeits. For as long as we believe that anything labeled “made in America” or “made in Europe” is superior, manufacturers will respond to this ignorance by feigning labels from those countries. Our indigenous industries will not grow until we exorcise this demon of western superiority.
It is not strange for our governments to close down a local industry on the mere basis that its products are “not fit for human consumption”. Nobody however, spares a thought as to how that low-quality product could be improved, its safety enhanced and production continued thus saving thousands of jobs that are usually lost.
These factory closures have in many cases also led to wastage of scarce skilled human resources. It would serve us better if such products were researched on, improved and kept in the market. The economy would grow, jobs would be created, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita would increase, the purchasing power would go up and we would be on our way to industrialisation.
President Uhuru Kenyatta joined other African heads of state in the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing during which China pledged to inject huge capital into the African economies through enhanced lending and infrastructure projects.
China has already taken the first step and established a research centre (Sino African Joint Research Centre) at JKUAT. However, more collaborations in ST&I are needed between the two countries to leverage on science, research and development to leapfrog Kenya’s development agenda.
We must keep a keen eye on the scientific and technological content of our cooperation with China and other nations. Our cooperation needs to be guided by explicit industrial and technology policy agenda that guarantees knowledge exchange, building local capacities, consumer safety while providing enabling environment for local innovations to thrive.