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Kenya joins drive to quell global hunger for semiconductor chips

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By Lydiah Nyawira | May 4th 2021
A semiconductor chip. [Courtesy]

Kenya is positioning itself as a global supplier of semiconductors at a time when the world is facing an unprecedented shortage of crucial components.

They are used in the manufacture of smart cars, phones, computers, TVs and other electronics.

President Uhuru Kenyatta last week opened a semiconductor factory at the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology (Dekut) in Nyeri County.

The factory is a Public-Private Partnership between Semiconductor Technologies (STL) Company and the university aimed at boosting President Kenyatta’s manufacturing pillar under the Big Four agenda. 

The global shortage of the key components is so dire that US President Joe Biden has announced plans to invest $50 billion (Sh5 trillion) in semiconductor manufacturing and research as part of his drive to rebuild the country’s manufacturing sector.

Semiconductors are materials that have electrical conductivity between conductors (generally metals) and non-conductors or insulators.

Bloomberg recently reported that overall demand for semiconductors of all stripes—from basic microcontrollers and memory chips to the most sophisticated high-performance processors—has grown over the past decade, as smartphone usage and computing power boomed.

A steady rise in semiconductor sales faltered in 2019 but rose 5.4 per last year on the back of shelter-in-place demand for home gadgets.

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The shortage has been occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic that has seen people work from home and education institutions focus on online classes.

This has created a demand for more smart gadgets, and the shortage in semiconductors has affected the manufacture of smart cars and could drive up the cost of home appliances and electronics such as laptops.

The Guardian has reported that “car manufacturers investing in tech-heavy electric vehicles, the boom in sales of TVs and home computers and launch of new games consoles and 5G-enabled mobile phones have all driven demand”.

It is against this backdrop that Kenya is positioning itself to be a major player in the sector with the opening of the semiconductor factory in Nyeri.  

Built during the Covid-19 pandemic, Uhuru said the plant was modern and relies on local manpower.

“I was proud to hear that the expertise and workmanship of the Kenyan team exceeded the expectations of the company, and we should all be proud that we have the ability to become an industrialised nation to create quality well-paying jobs for our youth,” he said. The factory will focus on manufacturing integrated circuits and sensors, which are raw materials in electronic gadgets such as those used in the now ubiquitous manufacturing of thermo guns.

The president lauded the factory as the first of its kind in the continent, noting Kenya will now sell microprocessors to the US, France and Japan.

“This is going to be the future for us to make our own motherboards and eventually TVs and phones, opening up new opportunities which may seem small, but they are critical foundations towards our manufacturing agenda,” said Uhuru.

The president noted the government was focused on turning Kenya from a consumer of products from foreign nations into a producer that exports their technology and products to other parts of the world.

The STL Chief Executive, Anthony Githinji, said the company utilised local talent within the university.

“The team working with us in the university is the best, and this day would not have been possible without their skills and dedication,” he noted.

The facility is also expected to benefit the mining sector with the use of raw minerals such as titanium that are key components in semiconductors. 

In Kwale County, 330,000 tonnes of ilmenite, plus rutile and zircon are extracted annually.   The Environmental Justice Atlas estimates that 250,000 tonnes of titanium ores will be exported annually from Kwale, while some 3.2 billion tonnes of the same mineral deposits can be found in Kilifi County.

The link between locally available minerals and the ease of manufacturing semiconductors position Kenya as a potential global supplier of the components.

The STL factory will also offer jobs to local academics with a deal to offer technology transfer between the company and the staff.  Dedan Kimathi University has developed a framework to allow students and staff to gain experience from the STL project. So far, five academic staff with PhD qualification are part of this framework.

The university has also recruited 20 Masters of Science students in Science and Engineering programmes with a focus on science and nanoscience projects.   

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