One of Kenya’s best known tech investors Ory Okollo co founder of Ushahidi has offered a counter opinion on the clamour for entrepreneurship and innovation in Africa. “You can’t entrepreneur around bad leadership, we can’t entrepreneur around bad policy,” Okolloh said. She was speaking at the Quartz Africa Innovator’s summit last week. I can’t agree more.
Many of us living in Nairobi have to contend with water rationing. When you wake up in the morning, a warm shower sets the tone for the day. Nothing spoils the mood like the absence of it. But a tap is a tap, when turned on, water should flow. You don’t need to innovate anything there! Just a few years back, Kenya discovered water aquifers in Turkana holding some 250bn cubic metres of this resource which can meet our industrial and domestic use for 70 years. Now consider that Turkana is one of the hottest, driest and poorest parts of Kenya always under the grip of devastating droughts.
Are our governments investing enough in our people? ‘People are the real wealth of a nation.’ This is the saying of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Africa’s economy is projected to grow 7% each year over the next two decades. Shouldn’t this growth lead to development? We have known for some time that education, health and infrastructure are important for escaping poverty. The question is: why has there not been better education and health and infrastructure? A report UNDP found out that in Chad, only one percent of the non-wage public spending on health actually reaches the clinics. Word Bank further reports that 48 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa (with a combined population of 800 million) generates roughly the same amount of power as Spain (with a population of 45 million).
One of my greatest friends and colleague, Frank Omondi runs a fair trade nuts exporting company, Ten Senses Ltd. They process and export minimum 15 Metric Tonnes monthly of fair trade and organic macadamia and cashew to Europe and America while maintaining a network of 62,000 small holder farmers countrywide. I usually consider him one of the foremost entrepreneurs of our times. Together with the indefatigable Boniface Nganga, the two also sit in my NGO board. Due to persistent electricity outages and problems from main grid, they have had to lease an industrial 125KVA Generator to keep the factory running. It costs them minimum 9,900 USD per month and for one yearalone, they will have spent upto 120,000 USD on alternative power source marginally eating into their profit. But Kenya is investing in energy. The country has set the ambitious target of producing 5,000 megawatts (MW) 2030, with special focus in renewable energy of geothermal, wind, solar and hydro. So they can only hope for better days ahead.
As I write this piece, the 300,000 plus Kenyan teachers are on strike running in the fourth week now literally paralysing learning in all public schools. Some of the students are expected to write their last examinations, KCSE and KCPE that essentially determines their career path. A 2014 report on learning outcomes in Kenya revealed that less than 20 per cent of third year primary school pupils (around age eight) can read or do basic mathematics. The persistent teachers strikes and government’s handling of the labour disputes doesn’t help matters either. Our project Sote ICT has an active volunteers program running year round and we welcome different professionals to work with us. Our current volunteer Eva Kis Lengyelova is from Slovakia. It is not funny, she is walking into some schools and welcomed empty classrooms!
There is no doubt that the continent’s best route out of poverty and away from extremism is through entrepreneurship and innovation. However, governments must act more in providing an enabling environment, basic infrastructure and pro business policies. Innovation can only be used to enhance access. Sote ICT project is opening a startup Hub in Voi to support our graduate students and the community through startup hub, impact sourcing, corporate volunteering, mentorship and micro-outsourcing. Also technical competences, such as digital fabrication, robotics and coding. We are working closely with the Taita Taveta County government through their own Biashara Centre.
In March this year on invitation Pontis Foundation, our amazing partners, I was privileged to give a series of talks in Cypriot Universities including Frederick University, University of Cyprus and University of Nicosia as well as in four other Slovak Universities. Among the many stories I shared, the most outstanding was the Mpesa revolution and how this simple mobile money innovation is transforming millions of lives especially in Kenya’s rural areas. My audience were impressed. As noted one article in CNN, eight years ago, when your phone buzzed, you knew it was probably a text message. But in Kenya, it was probably money! Our governments must continue to provide favourable environments and invest more in infrastructure. The opposite starves emergence of new fields, new knowledge and commercializable innovations and the country becomes poorer.
The writer manages the Sote ICT project Kenya and can be reached on twitter @DavidOgiga or email email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter
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