The Computer Society of Kenya

Since 1986


Tuesday June 21, 2016

Perhaps through the success of the M-Pesa phenomenon, Kenya has been dubbed the hotbed of innovation. This has also been reinforced by the ever-expanding list of innovation and incubation centres that keep churning new mobile applications (apps).

Kenya does seem to be quite a leader on the innovation lane.

Unfortunately, the annual global innovation publication that ranks countries according to their innovative capacities does not seem to think so. In its recent publication (2015), it placed Kenya at position 92 out of the 141 economies surveyed.

This is significantly behind Mauritius, which was placed at position 49, South Africa at 60 and Tunisia at 76. Switzerland, the UK and Sweden checked in at position one, two and three respectively, with Netherlands and the US making up the list of top five most innovative countries.

The publication measures innovation by looking at the performance indicators from the two perspectives of inputs and outputs of innovation.

The innovation and knowledge output is measured by the traditional indicators such as the number of patents, publications and citations coming out of our universities.

This is often a weak point for most universities in developing countries given that they do not allocate sufficient funds and effort to research based activities.


Many universities restrict their focus purely to teaching activities, ignoring the equally important missions of research and community outreach.

Such universities end up earning the infamous distinction of being nothing other than glorified high school campuses. The Kenyan innovation rating is negatively impacted by its lower number of publications and patents per capita.

Which begs the question as to why the various mobile-based applications are not being patented to increase our standing on the global innovation index. The answer is that most of the innovations are simply variations or instances of what has already been patented elsewhere.

Coming up with an app that uses the M-Pesa platform to link patients to insurance firms or link customers to their bank accounts is good but not sufficient to earn you a patent because the underlying concept of connecting two distinct markets over a mobile platform is no longer new knowledge.

Our youth may come up with as many variants and implementation of this concept but it will not move us up the innovation value chain - even though the new app will make the lives of more Kenyans convenient.

For us to move up the innovation value chain, we must deliberately institutionalise the nexus between industry and academia since that is exactly where the next radical innovation is going to come from.

On this point, Kenyan universities have tended to respond very poorly to industry requests to formalise engagements with academia in order to effectively identify and resolve pressing socio-economic issues.


Many university dons have no apologies to make for this poor response. They argue that their role is to teach and research around long-term basic principles as opposed to being derailed by industry or business enterprises that often driven by short-term financial objectives.

This essentially is an argument of whether we as a country want to place emphasis on basic research or applied research. Basic research tends to focus on creating knowledge that will be useful several generations ahead as opposed to applied research, which has an immediate impact on the contemporary society.

Highly innovative nations are actually doing both types of research. They are investing heavily in both types of research and are not arguing over which knowledge creation is better than the other.

Underperforming nations are actually doing neither of the two types of research. They prefer to pretend that they are busy doing long-term basic research in order to explain away their poor research output with respect to applied research.

It is time we had a national conversation about these issues and the annual innovation week at the University of Nairobi has always been a good place to start.

However, we must find a way to scale up our innovations from the low-value types to the high-value ones that can be patented in order to move us up on the global innovation index.

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