Why innovation in Kenya ‘died’ in 1985

The economic rise of China has left economists baffled, but excited. The nation overtook Japan and became the world’s second biggest economy in 2010.

Pundits further opine that America’s economic leadership may not be for long. If China grows at an average rate of 6.5 per cent and USA at 2 per cent per annum, it will overtake the US by 2026, says Malcolm Scott and Cedric Sam writing for Bloomberg on May 12, 2016. We look forward to the American reaction when this day finally dawns.

What has been the secret behind China’s rise? National unity and singleness of purpose enforced by communist party has played a role. Compare that with the acrimonious relationship between the Kenyan government and the opposition even on matters beneficial to the nation.

Where did we get the bad culture in Kenya of believing that only our ideas make sense? Why do we oppose other people’s ideas even when they are clearly superior to ours or we have none ourselves? Do you recall us opposing the Nyayo car? Did Moi’s successors make any car?

Long years of civilisation and upheavals may have given China the confidence to compete in the global arena. China quickly realised that fast economic growth needed globalisation (lessons from Japan and South Korea?). It built networks across the globe to access raw materials and markets.

The ‘soft’ part of China’s phenomenal economic success is often overlooked; its innovative capacity. The best measure of innovation capability is the number of patents granted. World Intellectual Property (WIPO) defines a patent as “an exclusive right granted for an invention, which is a product or a process that provides, in general, a new way of doing something, or offers a new technical solution to a problem.”

Technical information about the invention is disclosed to the public in a patent application to avoid duplication. There are other indicators of innovations, like trademarks and designs, but patents predominate.

US Trade and Patent Office (USTPO) identifies three types of patents. One is a utility patent granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.

Two is a design patent, granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.

Three is a plant patent, granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.

Most patents last for about 20 years and the owners pay yearly maintenance fees.

Data from the World Intellectual Property Institute (WIPO) shows that China registered 44 patents in 1985. Kenya registered twice as much, 98.

In 2015, China registered 359,316 patents. Kenya registered 24. Notice that by 2015, China had overtaken USA and Japan in spawning patents. Does it surprise you that Huawei, Haier, Baidu and Alibaba are now well known Chinese brands.

What happened in China and not in Kenya?

Innovations can’t wait for inspiration. We must invest in education and R&D to come up with innovations which once protected can be the seedbed of new firms and jobs. Recall the Kenyan researchers who forgot deliberately or inadvertently to protect the cervical cancer cure in collaboration with a British University? Economists will quickly remind you that patents are like monopolies and allow you to make money easily.

China invested in Science and Technology with more students taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and reserving 2.05 per cent of GDP going to R&D in 2015 compared with Kenya’s 0.79 per cent (2010 data).

The US National Academy of Science identifies four factors behind China’s continuing rise in science: a large population and human capital base, a labour market favouring academic meritocracy, a large diaspora of Chinese-origin scientists, and a centralised government willing to invest in science.

We may not have the first two, but do we favour academic meritocracy? How many Kenyan scientists are in the diaspora? How much do we invest in Science? China had 4.7 million recent STEM graduates in 2016, says the World Economic Forum.

What of us?

Will the new 2-6-6-3 system shift us to STEM and more innovations? Will there be more patents granted to Kenyans after the new system is launched? The new system is touted as more focused on skills instead of exams. Are innovating and its twin brother, creative thinking, among the skills? Why did Chinese (and Indians) realise the value of science and technology based on innovations while we did not? I will never get tired of asking why drama festival winners visit State House and not science congress winners.

One suggestion is that our policy makers are mostly social scientists who see science and technology as a nuisance and boring. This shunning of science and technology experts on the high table starts in secondary school and is reflected all the way to the presidency. How many governors, MCAs, MPs, senators or women reps are scientists?

Can the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) provide us with data on how many high school head teachers or principals, as they prefer to be called, are scientists? What of their deputies? I have suggested severally that in every high school in Kenya, one of key school heads, either the principal or his or her deputy should be a scientist.

How can we demand that the deputy CJ or one of the deputy IGPs should be a woman but when it comes to critical areas like Science and technology such affirmative action is forgotten.

We have never had a STEM president, while our deputy president has not leveraged on his science background to influence our national destiny in that direction. Chinese President Xi Jinping is a chemical engineer while Margaret Thatcher, the late British Prime Minister, studied chemistry at Oxford. Check the White House website, there is an Office of Science and Technology Policy which “advises the president on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. It also develops, coordinates, and implements science and technology policies and budgets.”

I don’t want to be cynical, but we have an Anti-FGM Board but no such science and technology policy office. Does the President of Kenya have a Science and Technology policy adviser, we know of political and education advisers?

Where do we go from here?

We are yet to treat innovation with the seriousness it deserves despite the fact that we are in a hurry to show off the fruits of innovations from phones to cars and other physical evidence. Yet, the greatest innovation is invisible, change in our mindset. From our homes to work place to parliaments at both national and county levels, up the presidency, we must start seeing innovations, the firms and jobs they create as the new economic blood.