Our scholars should learn from the diode

XN Iraki, Associate Professor at the University of Nairobi. 

The emergence of integrated circuits where electronic components are printed on a ‘motherboard’ means that we rarely know much about the individual components that make up the gadgets we use, from computers to phones or TVs. 

Who talks about resistors, transistors, capacitors, diodes and other components? 

The advancement of technology has mesmerised us with brands and what technology can do, not how it’s made. Think of TV, yours might be LED or OLED. Do you bother to know what these are? LED is for light emitting diode, O is for organic. Add QLED where Q is for Quantum dot.

The key word in these technologies is diode. It’s simply an electronic valve that allows the current to flow in one direction. We have valves in water pipes, oil pipes, and even on your pressure cooker. Check your iPod too! 

Enough on electronics. Sorry, I could be awakening the ghosts of those who slept through physics lessons. 

Why should scholars bother with diodes?  It illustrates how research is run worldwide. During this year’s University of Nairobi annual research, the guest speaker, Dr Catherine Kyobutungi, the executive director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) mentioned the diode effect in passing.

It caught my attention. She noted that lots of Westerners and Easterners do lots of research in Africa.  When Africans are studying in Western or Eastern universities, they come home to collect data for their thesis and other research too. 

I know a number of Nobel Prize winners in economics who did part of their research in Kenya. Examples include Elinor Ostrom (2009) and Michael Kremer (2019).

Foreign scholars can easily do their research in Kenya, they can easily interview CEOs or leaders. We love sharing information with them. It’s often seen as prestigious! 

It gets more interesting. In most of our lectures, we use Western written textbooks books or journals.  The more we quote them, the more learned we appear even on matters close to our hearts like dowry or, in whispers, witchcraft. With time we use the Western and, rarely, Eastern lenses to validate our intellectual arguments. Sadly often using old ideas, just like old cars. 

The diode effects come in because we rarely do research in Western or Eastern contexts or locations. How many scholars in Kenya have tried to carry out research in Europe or USA, China or Russia?

First, it’s expensive. You have to travel, seek accommodation, build networks and overcome other barriers such as prejudice. How would you go about interviewing CEOs of London or New York-listed firms? Even SMEs are hard to study.  

In the long run, we focus our efforts on what’s familiar, our local firms and contexts. The visiting scholars join us. They come to know more about us and our institutions. Yet we know so little about theirs. Don’t say it’s in the textbooks. When were they published? 

What we know about Western firms, institutions and even political systems is shaped by the media, not our in-depth research.

A good example. When I visited the German city, Hamburg, I feared being hit by bicycles more than cars - in the land of Mercedes and BMW! How much do we know about America’s rural areas or inner cities, away from the glamour of the cities (not inner cities)? 

The diode effect appears also in our learning and leading, where teachers, lecturers and leaders fear feedback. Remember that note on your receipt, “Goods once sold can’t be returned?” You can add to the list.

The diode effect has implications. In the political arena, it’s easier to be politically manipulated, our weak points are known. It’s known from good research what motivates our leaders, from the grassroots to the highest level.  In trade negotiations, we have less information about our partners. For example, if EU markets are opened for us, what shall we sell? How many exporters have been there? But European buyers likely know about Kenyan farmers and their supply chains. 

The firms doing business in Kenya and Africa have very intimate knowledge of our cultures, tastes, preferences and prejudices. Why else are they so successful? With time, we even feel guilty about not using their products or services, which become status symbols. 

Even in relationships, our views are shaped by media and movies.  How many Kenyans have lived with an American, European or Chinese family?  How much research have we done on women empowerment in the West? But they know a lot about our families.

Ever wondered why we dislike our names? ‘Call me Ken, not Onyango’? ‘Call me Myra not Wanjiku’? Think of an American saying, ‘Call me Ciku, not Heather’ or ‘Call me Kyalo, not Liam’. 

This asymmetrical information has implications for our lives and economies. It explains why growth has been elusive. Our identity and even paths to prosperity are defined by “others.”  As long as we are not willing to invest in research, the status quo will remain. What percentage of our GDP goes to research and development?