University-based research inspired Google. Is research needed to inspire Kenyan innovators too?

Eleanor Marchant
Aug 29, 2016 · 7 min read

A week or so ago, as part of my ongoing PhD research on technology innovation in Kenya, I decided to attend the Kenyan Internet Governance Forum held at Laico Regency Hotel in town. Throughout the day there were panel discussions on topics ranging from the regulation of online content to cyber-security to the role of the internet in the upcoming elections.

Tucked in at the very end of the day after a long tea break and after the sun went down, was a particularly thought-provoking “fireside chat” on the theme of “Innovation as a means of ensuring sustainable and inclusive development in the sector”. The people chatting included a cross section of entrepreneurs, as well as people from industry and academia.

Cross-sector collaboration between government, industry, and universities was the hot topic of the evening. But by far the most time was spent critiquing Kenyan universities’ failure to fulfill their part of that collaboration, the part where they’re expected to train the future innovators and entrepreneurs of Kenya. This failure seemed to be primarily attributed to the scarcity of applied teaching at universities that can give entrepreneurs the practical skills they need to start and run a business and that can give programmers the practical skills they need to get jobs and work in those environments.

The recent growth of private sector organizations like Andela, Moringa School, and Akirachix to train developers with these applied skills, as well as the portfolio and the networks, they need to succeed in the tech startup ecosystem is evidence of industry actors moving in to take up the mantle where universities are perceived to be failing. And when many of the Kenyan entrepreneurs and developers I interview frequently speak of their disappointment at the relevance of their university degree, there is indeed a real problem.

And yet, I found myself sitting there listening to the fireside chat that night thinking of another problem with the university system that didn’t seem to be getting the same amount of attention. What about the research? What about the role of research in science and technology in spurring and inspiring innovation? And what about the role universities are meant to play in producing that research? Am I biased just because I’m a PhD student, or don’t universities have a role to play in producing research that stimulates innovation?

The Triple Helix Model or why research matters for innovation

To try to answer this, I want to go back to something that Jessica Colaco raised during the fireside chat. In arguing for greater cross-sector collaboration, she mentioned something called the Triple Helix Model of innovation. And while even as a researcher I don’t generally like to spend too much time dwelling on academic theories, I think it’s worth just saying a few things about this particular one.

The Triple Helix Model is the brainchild of a Senior Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute, named Henry Etzkowitz. The core argument of the Triple Helix — which was built looking at the American context, it should be noted — is that “the interaction in university-industry-government is the key to improving the conditions for innovation in a knowledge-based society” (p. 295). One of Etzkowitz’s central arguments was that in earlier versions of what he called “modern society”, the industry and government were dominant, but in a knowledge-based economy, knowledge production, and therefore research that builds new knowledge, has begun to take an increasingly central role.

As knowledge building became increasingly central to economic development in the United States, so did universities. In the Triple Helix model, the role of universities in innovation was not simply to train innovators and entrepreneurs, but to produce the research in the sciences and social sciences on which innovation can be built.

Why research mattered in Silicon Valley

If you look at the history of the growth of Silicon Valley (and AnnaLee Saxenian’s book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 is a really excellent illustration of this), it is clear how central the role of universities, particularly Stanford, were in the spread of ‘silicon’ entrepreneurs all over that particularly American valley. Stanford does play an important role in training and teaching future entrepreneurs, but its more pivotal role has been in supporting research that has directly propelled innovation.

The best example of this is perhaps the biggest tech giant of them all, Google. Google started in 1996 as a research project with two PhD students in computer science, Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford, who developed an algorithm that would allow them to rank websites on the internet. They eventually built a company around this idea, and, well, you know the rest.

Kenyan universities and the scarcity of research funding

With some exceptions, Kenyan universities are not playing the role of knowledge-producer in the sciences that the Triple Helix Model would suggest it should. Why is this? Is the context different enough from the States that the Triple Helix isn’t relevant to Kenya? Indeed, just because a structure of industry-government-university interaction worked to build innovation in the United States doesn’t mean that is necessarily the right way to build an innovative and agile knowledge economy here in Kenya.

In discussions I’ve had with academics in the course of my research here, one of the central reasons why research consistently comes a distant second to teaching at Kenyan universities is the lack of funding. Many university faculty members here struggle with the limits of their salaries. Many junior faculty members in particular have told me stories about teaching multiple classes at multiple universities in order to make enough to support their families. And even senior faculty members have lamented the lack of institutional support for research. Even when there would be time in their schedules, who will fund the kind of expensive research in data science, social science, mathematics, and engineering that is needed to inform truly innovative innovations? As one Kenyan academic said to me, “the universities here do not foster a culture that encourages research.”

In the United States, much of the research conducted at universities receives funding from government bodies like the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NIH, for example, gives out over $30 billion annually to support research in the medical field alone. In 2014, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology in Kenya, announced a new National Research Fund for the specific purpose of supporting innovation in science and technology. And yet after having raised it in interviews, few researchers had heard about it, and when they had heard about it, the support the fund was offering was not enough to take them away from their teaching.

Will Kenyan universities stay relevant?

If the Triple Helix Model has any bearing here — and it very well may not — the role of universities should be getting ever more central to the growth of Kenya’s economy as it moves closer to being an economy not just based on agriculture and manufacturing, but also on knowledge-based industries like technology innovation. Instead, Kenyan universities are fighting to stay relevant.

Not only have industry actors come in to “fill the gap” they perceive universities have left behind in training entrepreneurs with organizations like Moringa School and Andela, but industry actors are also starting to fill the immense research gap. For example, startups like One Acre Fund are actively hiring researchers to inform innovations in house, and a number of private companies, like iHub Research, Intelipro, and Jessica’s own Brave Ventures Lab, have emerged to provide research services to support future technology innovations.

I would argue that regardless of context, research is a central and necessary component of enabling new innovations in technology. Where I believe context comes in is in who exactly will take up the role of conducting that research. In the United States and some other more established startup economies like Israel, it is often universities ,with financial support from the government, which play this role. That may not be the case in Kenya. It certainly isn’t the case right now. Just because American universities marry training of entrepreneurs and provision of research doesn’t mean that those two things need to be housed in the same institutions here in Kenya. Private ventures like those above may very well be the future of innovation-inspiring research in Kenya. But whoever takes up the mantle of the research role, they will need greater funding and support than they currently have to really make an impact.

At the moment, universities in Kenya are, by and large, not conducting the expensive scientific research, or receiving the funding expressly for research, that would be necessary for them to really take on this role. As Kenya begins to incorporate more knowledge-based industries like technology entrepreneurship into its economy, if universities want to stay relevant, they will need to demonstrate that they can not only train the entrepreneurs and engineers to fuel that economy, but also produce the high caliber research necessary to inspire those entrepreneurs.

Eleanor Marchant

Written by

Former media dev worker. Current Comm PhD @AnnenbergPenn. Research of narratives and tech innovation in Kenya.

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