A call for increased funding of physical sciences research

At the recently concluded Connected Kenya summit, I sat on a panel that discussed how far down the technology path we have come, and if there is really any reason to celebrate what some may argue is hype surrounding the “Digital Savannah”. Challenged by the moderator on our penchant for “m-vitus” – building and tinkering with this and that API to conjure an app that is promptly prefixed with the m for mobile and submitted to the next open hackathon; and thereafter celebration galore with a jackpot in the range of $10 – 15k, I opined that we are a maturing segment.

Likened to the growth of a baby, we must first tinker and break things and celebrate our little builds. As growth and maturity happens, we learn to see the broader world and use our acquired skills to tackle the larger more pressing issues that plague Africa.

This  past weekend, I spent an entire day at the Nairobi University’s School of Physical Science – Physics Department on a mission of discovery. First to try understand the mindset of academia, second to see what is in their labs and third to cement partnerships that will provide the foundations for the amalgamation of ideas that will address our “”big problems” or unearth new opportunities for value creation.

On mission one, I discovered how passionate academia is about applying themselves to the pursuit of better. Their biggest challenge is actually finding students with enough drive to join their ranks as most students are simply on the paper hunt, never really applying themselves or giving serious thought to future use of skills acquired.

Mission two, had me nodding and smiling at the labs, seeing prototypes conjured up from local materials. Proof of concept presented at various forums but seeing no real uptake in the market despite their potential for transformation in the sectors they are targeted such as green energy and agriculture.

It is here that the need for more funding in the physical science space became apparent. The biological science end of this has good representation with government funding –  KEMRI, KARI, KETRI, KEMFRI, and the Institute of Primate Research and international research institutes running – ICIPE, ILRI and ICRAF.  We do not have (at least to my knowledge) any established physical science research labs in the country.

To build things, you need parts and often times these parts are not forthcoming,  resulting to workarounds or continuous requests for evaluation kits from various vendors. The proof of concept when building out hardware is two pronged – churning out the actual device (s) and testing in it in a real world scenario on a scale that will provide a sufficient data pool to confirm if it is a no or a go.

The labs and equipment could do with an upgrade too. With many of the top end machines having been donated, government – think Vision 2030 and private enterprise should take a serious look at strengthening our own research and development capabilities.

Herein lies one of the keys to cementing our technology hub status in the region and perhaps the world.

Mission three was commercial in nature, and if the engagement goes well, I just may share the experience with you 🙂

An Africa based entrepreneur in the pursuit of opportunities without regard to resources currently controlled striving to build services that have real-world value for my beloved continent and beyond while having fun along the way.
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