Engineers in Kenya are a quiet lot. They generally abide by the practice of ‘action, not words’ and take a fact-based approach to issues. However, being so self-effacing often works to their disadvantage. As the saying goes, ‘the hinge that squeaks is the one that gets oiled’; reticence has resulted in the engineering profession to be roundly ignored in the country, unlike professions like law and medicine. Work that should normally be done by engineers is either outsourced (usually to China) or given to laymen.
Engineering is the discipline that ‘harnesses the resources of nature for the benefit of man’. Engineers are creators; they make roads, generate power, run industries and build houses. They also design and manufacture various consumer items.
Creativity generates new ideas and inventions, and ideas are the raw material of innovation.Kenyans are reputed to be innovative. The country was ranked third in Sub-Saharan Africa in the Global Innovation Index (GII) in 2018, behind South Africa and Mauritius. Much of the innovation in Kenya comes from non-technical sectors like finance. Strengths for Kenya in the Global Innovation Index included access to finance, especially micro-finance loans and business sophistication. An examination of the patents registered by Kenya Intellectual Property Organisation, KIPO confirms that the great majority of the patents are registered by local branches of foreign entities.The few local patents that are registered are from non-science and technology fields.
Innovation provides the vitality for growth and advancement. Firms that do not innovate die off, as can be seen in the recent change of fortunes of Kodak and Nokia. The same is true for societies.Innovation that is based on science and technology has a profound contribution to an economy.
One of the most accurate indicators for evaluating the capacity of a country to produce innovations is the proportion of engineers and scientists that it produces, and its capacity to retain them. There is a significant overlap between the most innovative economies and those that lead in engineering. The World Economic Forum lists the five most innovative countries as Switzerland, USA, Israel, Finland and Germany. All these countries appear in the Times Higher Education list of the top countries in Engineering. A study has found that 37 of the top 50 top inventions since the invention of the wheel required a solid grasp of engineering fundamentals.
Long engineering tradition
Kenya has a long engineering tradition. It has for long been the manufacturing hub of East Africa. The University of Nairobi has perhaps the oldest school of engineering in the region. The country has a long tradition of training engineers, and has also benefited from having some of its engineers trained in other countries. Several Kenyan engineers ply their trade in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, South Sudan and other countries, despite the number of engineers in the country,at 6,000, still being well below the ideal requirement of about 20,000. This indicates a low retention rate for the country.Kenya performs poorly in the Global Innovation Index for human capital and research.
Kenya does not make good use of the few engineers that it already has.Some of the types of jobs and projects carried out by Kenyan engineers in South Africa are done by Chinese engineers in Kenya. Doctors have made a great fuss over a handful of sorely needed Cuban medics operating in Kenya. It would be unheard of for foreign lawyers to work in Kenya. The only reason that engineers accept this state of affairs is probably because they have not made their impact felt in society.
Engineers should wake up and play their role in contributing to solve the country’s current challenges.Innovation involves the successful exploitation of new ideas and the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, un-articulated needs, or existing market needs. And it is not that there are no problems to work on.
Crying out for innovations
The country is crying out for innovations in renewable energy, building technology and materials, and even manufacture.There have been few ground-breaking innovations in these fields. A few engineers have however trail-blazed the path. The case of an engineer generating electricity by mini-hydro in Nyeri county and feeding this into the grid through a Feed in Tariff, FITis a good example.Renewable energy provides several opportunities for innovations. Engineers need to open up the space to enable them to effectively ply their trade and take its rightful position as the drivers of innovation.
Other avenues for innovation are in building sector.There have been several cases of buildings collapse or new bridges being swept away, even before being put to intended use. The voice of the engineers is unheard when roads in the country are falling apart. They are now blamed for the shoddy work, even in cases when non-engineers were used in the design. Electricity is quite expensive locally.
Engineers should understand that innovation is not only limited to invention, but also in the way that the work is organised, in measures to remove quacks from the profession, in methods that can be introduced to maintain standards, and indeed in the way that they communicate with society.
The writer is a lecturer. He heads the Department of Flying Studies in the School of Aerospace Sciences of Moi University. Views expressed in this article are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org .
This article was published in the Daily Nation: Engineers should lead way in way in innovation