It was Robert Metcalfe, a US engineer and entrepreneur who helped pioneer the internet in the 1970s, who said: “Invention is a flower, innovation is a weed.”
This means gaining impact for new ideas, not just having them. Unfortunately, for many innovators in Kenya, the inspiration that comes with that triumphant discovery does not last beyond Archimedes’ eureka moment.
While the world is replete with stories of promising innovations, the energy dies down for many of the innovators, leading to very low impact – save for the short-lived fame.
To the world, Kenya’s story of innovation cannot end without mentioning M-Pesa. But it also cannot be complete with M-Pesa alone.
Before its sensational sweep of the market in 2007, other big inventions existed — but many suffered stillbirths.
The home-made washing machine
And this is the fear that 42-year-old Joram Moi finds himself in now. In 2016, the Class Eight dropout from Kakamega County made headlines for creating a manual washing machine.
To operate the washing machine, one simply needs to place clothes inside the container, add a few litres of water and then pedal all the way to a piece of clean fabric.
And for those looking to cut weight, he says, the peddling process offers exercise as a bonus.
A big, bright and promising idea, but now headed to the grave. Mr Moi made two prototypes at a cost of Sh72,000, hoping to catch the eye of the world and get funded.
Over three years later, he can only stare at his prototypes. The idea has been spotted by Masinde Muliro University’s Innovation and Incubation Centre.
“That was my vision but I have failed to get funding. I wanted to commercialise the idea but I have made many unsuccessful proposals to the county government,” says Moi.
“The officials told me they don’t have a budget for innovations and that they can’t fund individuals. Now I am looking at the possibility of selling the idea to someone who can patent it.”
Adding to his frustration is the fear that his idea may be stolen unless he patents it soon.
While Moi’s idea remains inactive, his head is burning with other innovations. But he does not know if tomorrow will be better.
“When I hear our president talk about manufacturing and the Big Four agenda, I just don’t know who he has in mind,” he says.
Moi’s situation is not an isolated case. Many innovators step out of thinking rooms happy, only to sink into uncertainties.
The Kenyan car
Across in Bungoma County, meet Anthony Waningu. He developed a vehicle that can move at a speed of 80km per hour. He dreamt of moving across the counties with the two-seater vehicle to promote peace.
He also worked on a project to make a motorbike with a bigger engine for doctors to use when attending to emergency cases.
While the ideas look promising, the aeronautical engineering degree dropout does not know how and when they can be commercialised.
From the 1986 Nyayo Pioneer Car that could not even go a kilometre during its launch, more innovations keep springing up.
For many innovators, limited knowledge on funding and commercialisation stands in the way as their ideas sit as prototypes.
Only fame – and sometimes shame – comes for many of the innovators. But a few are shattering the glass ceiling.
Animations for sign language
Lugha Ishara, a community-based organisation which in April 2019 won Sh1 million seed capital from Standard Chartered Bank for innovating animations for sign language, is one such example.
Immediately after the award, the innovators had to enter another crunch phase of their innovation — introducing it to a few parents with deaf children, testing and fine-tuning the idea.
They are currently working with Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital and Tangaza University as key partners.
“When you are innovating, it takes a lot of time and money. Once past this, you still need a lot of patience in scaling up,” says Nancy Maina, team leader and co-founder of the innovation.
“Parents with deaf children trust doctors before they can trust us. The partnership has allowed us to offer psychosocial and language components under one roof.”
Lugha Ishara is now piloting a deaf-optimised platform and hopes to take the innovation to another level.
Ms Maina says it is critical to ensure innovations are user-centred and reliably solving a particular problem if one is to get new and repeat customers.
“They are not just buying the product. They are also looking for a sense of belonging, safety and trust. It has taken us three years to figure this out and we are now scaling up,” she says.
Dry farming innovations
The place of partnerships and fine-tuning to ensure the success of innovations is also cited by Bioafriq Energy—a Machakos-based social enterprise that develops dryers for farm produce to reduce post-harvest losses.
The dryers are fueled by biomass briquettes and pellets that the firm produces by recycling agricultural waste.
BioAfriq Energy founder and Managing Director James Nyamai says the period between innovating and commercialising the idea was the most critical.
One of the key challenges was shifting from the successful model to commercialising it.
“It was capital-intensive and one of the key things we worked on was how to establish strategic partnerships to help in capacity building, mentorship and training,” says Mr Nyamai.
Bioafriq has partnered with institutions such as Kenya Climate Innovation Centre and E4impact.
“Sometimes it feels lonely but just having people we can get in touch with, it becomes easier to navigate through since the problems facing startups tend to be almost similar,” says Nyamai.
The firm had for over six months tried on its own to patent the idea at Kenya Industrial Property Institute but the process was dragging.
But its partnership with Kenya Climate Innovation Centre helped by engaging a lawyer who pushed through the patenting within three months.
“They also trade-marked our logo, giving us the confidence to go to the market without fear of losing the idea. It is one of the big fears for any innovator,” says Nyamai.
Biofriq in 2019 was the first runners-up in Total Energies l Startupper Challenge, which awards innovators with grants to scale up their ideas.
Nyamai says startups have to take advantage of the many training opportunities that exist if they are to avoid the common missteps that their predecessors committed.
In 2013, the country formed Kenya National Innovation Agency, a State corporation to scout for and nurture innovative ideas from individuals, training institutions and the private sector.
The agency also works with partners to ensure innovation recognition and publication of the same. But many innovations are still not being scaled up.
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