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It’s ‘Made in Kenya’ moment, let’s back local innovations

By David Oginde | October 25th 2020

Let Manyani display prosper into technology game-changer.

The recent display in Manyani by young innovators was greatly heartening. They set out to provide local solutions across various sectors using technology. In the field of technology, Kenya, and indeed Africa, have been net consumers rather than providers of innovative solutions.

Yet, the world is becoming almost 100 percent dependent on technology. Just this week, it was reported that Nokia is working with NASA on placing a 4G mobile network on the moon! This is at a time when many sections of our country have no mobile network at all.

Analysts argue that China has taken the pedestal as an economic leader, with Chinese tech companies leading in the global market. Such a brand as Huawei is now rated as the world’s top telecommunications equipment maker.

In fact, Huawei is quickly becoming a world leader in developing 5G technology. Thus, a key factor that has catapulted China into becoming a global economic superpower seems to be its focus on technological innovations, buttressed by a deliberate government support for innovators and manufacturers.

This is what makes the Manyani initiative, though feeble by global standards, greatly laudable. It deliberately sought to identify and support local innovators.

For a fact, some of these products may take a while to penetrate the global market. However, M-Pesa has shown us that building a strong local consumption eventually strengthens a brand and more easily launches it into the global market. M-Pesa is now being embraced or copied by the global community.

In 2016, none other than Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook billionaire founder, made a sudden appearance in Nairobi and declared plainly, “I am here to learn about mobile money.”

Three years later, in 2019, Facebook unveiled plans for a new global digital currency called Libra. Though Libra has had teething problems, as of August this year, Facebook was intent to build its own cryptocurrency wallet called Calibra, to be nestled within WhatsApp. All this after studying our own M-Pesa!

Considering the vast array (by our standards) of new technologies and innovations on display at Manayani, it means that if we invested in developing these ideas to the M-Pesa level, we could easily play in the global league of innovators. But this calls for the kind of resilience and support that helped M-Pesa overcome initial obstacles and doubts – especially from the banking sector – before it broke forth. It is a fact that without the studious backing from Central Bank and Treasury, M-Pesa would have come a cropper.

Experts report that one of the ways China has grown its economy is by targeting domestic consumption. Many Chinese companies try to tailor their products to Chinese tastes. Of course, China has about 20 per cent of the global population. But even then, there is something about targeting the local market that makes good sense and cents.

President Kenyatta reported that the youth have for the first time in the region done the mapping of resources that are in the country using only 10 per cent of the Sh30 billion that a foreign company had quoted to do the same job.

One of the key factors that readily kills our local initiatives is our penchant for the imported, even if it is mitumba. It is why a friend once bought a very expensive pair of jeans trousers at an upmarket store in the US, only later to find the inside label proudly written, “Made in Kenya.” It had been tailored right here at our EPZ.

Shutting down

The second serious threat we must deal with is greed – the materialistic selfishness that has no qualms shutting down our industries in order to bring in cheap imports. It is what has killed our textile, sugar, cereals, and several other sectors of the economy. It is absolutely futile to encourage local innovations if we are going to undermine them by bringing in cheap imports – some of it fake, pirated, or substandard.

But even in this, there may be something to learn from China. Apparently, China requires several things of foreign companies who want to do business in China or work with Chinese companies. One is that they often must share their technology.

Chinese companies then use this knowledge to make the products themselves. What if we did likewise, especially with China?

What is clear from the Manyani initiative is that Kenya has great potential that must be exploited. The journey that has started must be aggressively pursued to help our youth join the league of global innovators.

For as the Chinese Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. The Bible also exhorts: Do not despise the day of small beginnings.

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