By Otula Owuor

As Kenya ends the final stretch of heated political campaigns major parties and independent presidential candidates have had agendas, manifestos, promises and utterances that directly or indirectly recognize various aspects of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) as key in overcoming dehumanizing levels of poverty and availing basic human needs. It seems the politicians may be starting to realize that STI is key if Kenya and other African nations are to stand on their feet in terms of survival and home-grown socio-economic progress.

However, in Kenya and other African nations it is the implementation of home-grown STI policies that remains elusive. Policymakers and academics in Africa, often talk about the need to catch up with the rapidly industrializing Asian countries like South Korea which five decades ago were also among the “technologically backward” or poor nations.

However, catching up with South Korea, for example, begins with meeting Africa’s own goal of allocating at least one percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Research and Development (R&D). South Korea’s allocation is at least three times higher. The country  serves as an example of STI being the driving force behind goods and services used for availing basic human needs and competition in the local, national, regional and global “market place.”

Still the era of equating vast mineral and petroleum resources with emergence of sustainable development is vanishing fast. One can’t equate “oil rich” Middle East, South American and African Nations with major STI driven Asian economies like Japan, China. South Korea and also India despite its noticeable mass poverty linked to the horrifying and deeply entrenched caste system.

However, Kenya’s emerging STI trends include the 2013 Enactment allocating two percent of the GDP for R&D which is double Africa’s commitment if finally implemented. The country has a highly active National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI); the newly created Kenya Innovation Agency (KENIA); National Research Fund (NRF) and is also a member of the East African Science Technology Commission (EASTECO) that aims to place STI at the centre of sustainable regional socio-economic development and integration.

Still the African Academy of Sciences and Amref Health Africa the world’s largest health development international NGO have their roots in Kenya. The country harbours more international R&D institutions, key UN and donor agencies than other sub-Saharan African nations although South Africa, Ethiopia and Nigeria remain highly competitive.

There is also Eastern Africa’s Igad Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAK) providing much needed warning against increasing climatic hazards and destructive weather to 10 countries in collaboration with national meteorological services or departments. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) also has offices in Nairobi. These institutions avail valuable data and information needed to mitigate or adapt to devastating climate change impacts including ongoing drought linked to food shortages.

Thus with the existing STI infrastructure, Kenya’s next Government and Parliament should be well placed to urgently implement the enacted two percent of GDP funding  for various R&D institutions and STI activities thus helping curb their unacceptable levels of dependency on the increasingly unpredictable donors.

The country, for example, gives the Kenya Medical Research Institute, (KEMRI), one of Africa’s top R&D institutions, only 20 percent of its Kshs.7 billion annual budget. It is the national body responsible for carrying out research in health in according to the Science Technology and Innovation Act, 2013.

The need to curb such levels of dependency is crucial if Kenya is to attain Vision 2030 which is the national development policy aiming to transform the country into a newly industrializing, middle-income nation providing a high quality of life to all citizens by 2030 in a clean and secure environment. In other words home-grown STI is also at the centre of national efforts to attain the Sustainable Development Goals.

Increased funding should also be appropriately extended to universities, technical colleges and NGOs involved in “priority” STI activities. The national and county governments should create enabling policy and financial environment for the much ignored and often harassed Jua Kali sector. It is viewed as the country’s real first step towards sustainable industrialization. This is especially so if it involves increased practical collaboration with Kenya Bureau Standards, universities, technical and national research institutes while curbing extremes of other mushrooming county and national regulatory authorities that only focus on punitive measures.

However, specifically, increased funding should include the pioneering national R&D institutions including Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI), Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) and KEMRI.

Food Security

A closer look at, for example, one of these five national R&D institutions – KALRO – may easily help open eyes on the urgent need to give home-grown STI a chance. The severe food shortages that peaked during the just ended election are strong indicators that Kenya needs to promptly give extra attention and funding to KALRO’s work focusing on sustainable solutions to food insecurity.  The same should be done for other key national R&D institutions.

KALRO has the expertise, experience and infrastructure basically covering all of Kenya’s “agricultural and ecological” zones and is practically well placed to save the country from humiliating food insecurity and imports.  Those who have visited KALRO’s facilities spread across the country easily notice its untapped potential including a long list of important R&D innovations.

However, researchers in KALRO and other national research institutes still spend much time developing proposals that meet donors’ demands and not necessarily national priorities. Kenya needs policies that boldly facilitate, protect and promote the uptake of the increasing innovations- products and services- from all national research institutes that have discarded the outdated notion of merely publishing or important research findings and walking away leaving it upon others- with least “inside knowledge” to implement.

Specifics about KALRO’s products and services and new knowledge easily tells the story. It is helping Kenya improve production of various types of high yielding crops including coffee, tea, maize, wheat, rice, sorghum, millet, sugarcane, peas, beans, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes including varieties rich in vitamin A, cassava, fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, industrial or oil crops, fodder, livestock pasture seeds and others.

There is continuous research against “old and new” diseases and pests, post-harvest losses. There are also R&D activities focusing on crop varieties that withstand drought and pests apart from being more nutritious.

However, there are numerous specific STI related activities. KALRO is also involved in commercialization – production and value addition- of passion fruit in Kwale County where farmers prepare juice and jam for sale. It has registered three passion fruit varieties and partnered with Coke and Technoserve in using two of the varieties for making Minute Maid juice.  KALRO has also trained over 5,000 farmers in banana production, value addition and certified banana product (crisp) is currently distributed to super markets.

Commercialization efforts extend to KALRO’s highly productive varieties of apples, papayas, canola, oil palm, macadamia and vanilla. Still it includes avocado oil for export, cocoa seedlings planted on KALRO stations in Malindi, Lamu, Mtwapa, Alupe and Kibos. It is also focusing on improving and commercializing underutilized nutritious fruits like guava and gooseberry. The list can be endless.

Similar STI efforts goes on in KALRO’s livestock sector that includes improving quality and quantity of sheep, goats, camel, cattle, forage, feeds, pasture, pigs and poultry. There are still very many useful R&D activities at KALRO and the examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The trend exists in other national and international research institutions.

The country will not wake up and start manufacturing aeroplanes overnight. It begins with what is seen as low level R&D focusing on availing basic human needs. However there is need to fund these institutions.