Private Sector Partnerships Hold Key To Sustained Innovation In Kenya

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The Innovation Africa 2016 conference held recently in Nairobi underpinned one important truth; that the private sector must proactively pursue and forge partnerships with innovators if the country is to realize the long-term socio-economic benefits of innovation.

As governments, private sector and entrepreneurs came together for this annual exhibition, it was clear that Kenya abounds with innovative ideas and talent but it is their harnessing and nurturing that is more often than not lacking.

Although some homegrown innovations like M-Pesa have been successful in spurring economic growth, far-reaching and scalable innovation can only occur within well organized and government-supported frameworks.

Indeed, the government has set up various mechanisms to spur innovation through platforms such as the Uwezo and Youth Funds, Vision 2030 as well as through legislation such as the Science, Technology and Innovation Act, the latter, which mandates that R&D spending be doubled to two percent of the GDP.

It is, however, the private sector that can generate the sustained momentum that can transform innovations into profitable ventures.

Although this holds true, most private sector organizations are always preoccupied with internal innovations that only guarantee market share and increased margins for shareholders. However, as was opined by panel after panel at the Nairobi Innovation Week, you can’t innovate alone.

So where would a private organization joining the innovation path start?

First, it is important to look outwardly as opposed to inwardly for innovative ideas. Internal innovations are in many instances profit-driven with a focus on growing bottom lines. However, looking outside the organization ensures that you partner with innovators that are consumer-oriented and out to develop solutions for societal problems.

Safaricom serves as a good example, having partnered with innovations like M-ledger, M-Kopa and Eneza that offer solutions in the crucial financial, energy and education sectors. These innovations have eventually attracted the attention of other partners, including government and are now fully fledged businesses.

The second path for an organization would be to consider taking part in the formation of or sponsoring innovation hubs. Such a strategy, especially if executed at the county level, would provide the perfect opportunity to tap into the innovations that rarely make it to the urban, high-end boardrooms of banks and venture capitalists.

We have in the past several years increasingly seen private sector organizations partner with universities and charities to start innovation hubs and incubation centers like iHub, Mlab, Nai-Lab and C4Dlab that provide the much-needed space and resources for innovators. The iHub – that has been home to over 170 startups – is proof that Kenyan innovators, when adequately nurtured, can move up the innovation chain from idea to prototype, startup and finally into sustainable businesses.

In addition, the private sector should consider getting involved in the improvement of the quality and quantity of tertiary education to grow innovation. The Federation of Kenyan employers has in the past alluded to the skills gap between formal education and the industry.

As such, encouraging linkages between academia and the private sector is critical in facilitating technological innovations that can substantially increase productivity and employment in the country. Andela, a tech organization that recruits and shapes the most talented software developers in Kenya into technical leaders and innovators is already on that path.

However, more needs to be done if we truly desire to see Kenyan innovations competing at the global stage.

The key lies in nurturing and encouraging the creation of human centric innovations that have meaningful impact in society. This I believe, is the ultimate assignment that the private sector must willingly take up.

American businessman and philanthropist Jerry Greenfield opines: “If you open up the mind, the opportunity to address both profits and social conditions are limitless.” It is this space that the private sector must be encouraged to fill and KCB has gladly showed the way with the launch of the KCB Lion’s Den show.

If the initial episodes are anything to go by, then entrepreneurs with innovations that solve real problems in Kenya will have an added advantage when they eventually get their day in the “den” for an opportunity to get funding.

A classic example is the young Richard Turere, a 12-year-old Maasai boy, who invented solar-powered “lion lights” that have significantly reduced human-wildlife conflict in his community

All these efforts, capped by an improved policy framework, that has already facilitated the formation of the National Innovation Agency, Kenyans’ dreams of a tangible “Silicon Savanah,” will catapult our country to global heights.

David Karega is a Communications Expert with Hill+Knowlton Strategies

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About Kuza Biashara

About Kuza Biashara

Starting a business is a leap of faith even in the best of circumstances. We at Kuza Biashara are focussed to encourage these daring small business owners who have the potential to innovate and change the world by contributing to the nation’s economy and livelihood.