Over the months Kenya has been battling COVID-19, young people have developed ingenious ideas as part of their contribution to the fight.
A good number of these youth are university students. However, let us go back to pre-COVID-19 times. Such stories were not making news headlines in a frequent rate as they are now. It is not that these campus youngsters did not have ideas then, no; in fact they have always had brilliant ideas.
The problem is that they were not being given necessary support and visibility as the country had other priorities. As a nation we were not facing a life devastating monster as we are now. There were and still remain very few formal support systems for university students with tangible innovations to commercialize them.
What exists is one-off well- wisher support mechanism where students wait for some generous corporate or non- governmental organization to come along and sponsor an innovation competition in campus.
Worse still, in such competitions some of the sponsors blatantly steal the intellectual property of these young minds or pay a non- commensurate amount for the ideas. Students with market changing proposals end up getting nothing more than a laptop and a few thousand shillings.
Make no mistake, am not vilifying these sponsors; at least they have done something, however little. In any case they are only closing a gap that our national innovation system has failed to address.
I must also state here that some local universities, especially the older ones, have good innovation support infrastructure that includes annual exhibitions.
What we need as a country is to have formal consistent mechanism at each university or tertiary institution level to identify, finance and promote campus innovations. University entrepreneurship and innovation clubs need to be strengthened so that they are continuously calling upon students to give solutions to our everyday challenges and for the country’s development.
They need to have significant and stable financing from the university budget. The universities in turn require adequate funding from the likes of National Research Fund (NRF).
NRF itself need to be funded to the right tune of at least two percent of our gross domestic product annually as envisaged in the Science Technology and Innovation Act 2013.
Local universities and their alumni associations can also emulate what globally leading universities have in the name of endowment funds. These will provide a system where now successful former students can assist current students achieve their innovation goals.
Our universities remain the single most important sources of knowledge and skills for our country’s economic growth and industrialization.
Through them we can have a consistent stream of innovative startup unicorns that would create the much needed jobs. Institutions of higher learning provide an unrivaled entrepreneurship ecosystem rich in knowledge, skills, experiences, networks, credibility among other benefits. Some of the big names in tech world today were once dormitory startups in supportive universities.
This is evidence enough that it is possible and there is no reason as to why such a model cannot be successfully duplicated here in Kenya.