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Innovation, not talking holds the key to faster economic growth

By | February 21st 2012 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

By XN Iraki

A quick visit to World Intellectual Property Office ( WIPO) website  indicate that by  the year 2010 Kenya had one patent in force ( hope it was an error), South Korea had 640,412, China  (564,760),  US (2,017,318) Japan  (1,423,432) and South Africa (6,530).

Patents offer legal protection to new ideas and innovations. The thinking is that without patents, innovators will have no incentive to spawn new ideas. The 20 or so years under which patent lasts gives innovators enough time to recoup their costs.

We are already conversant with patents; pharmacists prescribe either branded drugs or generics which are cheaper. Generics appear after the patent of the original drug expires. This allows more firms to produce the drug, increasing the supply and therefore lowering the price.

Registered patents are soon turned into new business ventures. The market has an insatiable appetite for new ideas espoused by new products and services. New ideas drive the economy, creating new businesses, jobs and raising the standards of living.

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Yet, creating new ideas is not our favorite business, we prefer to recycle ideas; why is copying, from classrooms to fashions and new businesses so popular?

In fact digging deeper into patents registered in Kenya shows a very disheartening pattern, there was a decline in number of patents from independence till around 1990s, when there was an upswing; the end of single part era may have widened both the democratic and  creative spaces.

Why are averse to innovations? Some argue we are a very innovative nation, but the innovations are not formalised. While that may be true, innovations are rarely part of our discourse. Rarely do our MPs and other opinion makers talk of patents, yet we love the fruits of innovations showing off our smart phones and other physical manifestations of innovations.

Recall when Michael Jackson died? He was the headline in our local newspapers. Steve Jobs, one of the greatest innovators of all times was not in the headlines.

Our culture rarely rewards innovators; we learn early in life that "thinking" is not a profitable venture. We rarely come across people who made it rich through innovations.

Add the fact that we believe in imported products and the need for innovation dwindles. You can get whatever you want in the supermarkets or even travel abroad in case of services.  So why innovate, why think?

The affluent can enjoy all the innovations and have few incentives to innovate. You can drive the latest car; Get the latest phone, computer, and other products. The poor cannot afford the luxury of innovations. How can we close the "innovations divide"?

In other countries venture capitalists have closed the divide. They have the money but seek ideas to fund. This model can be replicated in Kenya.  It has worked wonders elsewhere. In California’s Silicon Valley, the universities from Stanford to California institute of technology spawn new ideas, as venture capitalists wait.

That symbiotic relationship gave birth to Microsoft, Apple, Google, and other icons of modern technology. The vibrancy of this valley is catalyst by foreigners who bring new thinking and perspectives particularly Asians who make a third of the Silicon Valley, but are less than one per cent of the US population.

California has successfully linked the thinkers (academia), the funders (venture capitalists) and the implementers (entrepreneurs). One hopes that Konza city will go beyond land speculation to something close to the Silicon Valley model. Currently our thinkers have been cut off the loop innovations.

How about measuring the success of universities in terms of number of patents granted and not number of graduates per year?

Our intellectual property protection is wanting. This penalises innovators.

Penalise innovations

Our schooling system penalises innovators, it rewards conformists. May be that is why few firms trace their incubation to our institutions of higher learning the same way Google would refer to Stanford or Facebook to Harvard.

We hope the envisaged reforms in education from 844 to 663 will eschew innovations.  Others boldly argue that "tuition" is the altar on which innovation was sacrificed. Students learn early that someone (teacher) should do the thinking for them.

Where do we go from here?

Economists, from Robert Solow to Paul Romer have argued that economic growth is to large extent driven by innovations, itself driven new knowledge.

That is why great epochs in human history are defined by innovations from Stone Age to Bronze Age, Iron Age, and now computer age. Sadly, we define our epochs by political events, from colonialism, to Kanu era, Narc, and now Grand Coalition. Innovations could help  us achieve Vision 2030 before 2030.

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