By Brian Omwenga
While conducting fieldwork research on innovation in Africa, I found myself in a boardroom in Botswana, with a group of upcoming tech CEOs. One of the CEOs quipped, “Do you know the Land Rover is an African car?” Looking puzzled, I waited for him to offer further explanation. Surely, we all know that the Land Rover is made and most often assembled in the United Kingdom. “…the Land Rover,” he continued, “needed to come to Africa to understand what off-road means.”
There are many who have said that “if it works in Africa, it can work anywhere in the world.” This gives us a glimpse into the contextual contribution of Africa and the African society to the innovation process. Indeed, the Land Rover may have needed to come to Africa to face certain unique challenges that subsequently contributed to various improved iterations. It remains among the leading off-road vehicles in the world, and undoubtedly remains an invention of the United Kingdom.
This is a story that repeats itself severally in Kenya and probably across most of the continent. A new age of extraction is upon us, driven primarily through knowledge and knowledge assets. Africa’s unique setting contributes a wealth of contextual conditions that can drive an immense amount of innovation. Yet, the actual Intellectual Property capital that is held by Africans is little to insignificant. The controversial story of M-Pesa and its invention is one intertwined with nuances of IP capital that we as a nation and as a continent need to be pensive over.
In the not too recent past, the unveiling of 5G technology had China and the United States locked up in a tussle that can only be interpreted as a jostling for technological supremacy. Elsewhere in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the government’s commitment and funding towards quantum computing research; across the EU, legislation around data and privacy as well as attempts in digital tax (France) and control of the EU digital marketplace have captured tech headlines of late. Quite clearly, governments have become aware of the importance of technology autonomy and supremacy as a clear competitive advantage in this day and age. This is a race driven by knowledge assets.
The Digital Economy and the impending 4th Industrial Revolution places us at a sublime generational nexus, which we cannot ignore. The discovery of the wheel in ancient Mesopotamia tens of thousands of years ago, heralded the advent of the Agrarian revolution (which some recognize as the 1st Industrial Revolution). With the wheel, men were able to move agricultural produce using carts from one location to another, creating the ability to mass produce and bring the food to where they stayed rather than having to travel around in search for it. Organised farming practices resulted in formal ownership of land and a lapse of the hunter-gatherer practices. This was the advent of organised human settlement, resulting in the establishment of villages, and further inventions such as roads. Civilisations that mastered and innovated around inventions of this age soon became superpowers – Greece as well as the Persian and Roman empires.
The late 18th and early 19th Centuries saw the introduction of modern day economics. Adam Smith (1723-1790) (later recognised as the father of economics) in his book ‘Wealth of Nations’ set out the concepts of scarcity and competition. He famously said, “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Competition was identified as a phenomenon that existed simply because of the reality of scarce resources. Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the father of modern evolution theory, also based his biological theory of natural selection on the phenomenon of competition. At around this same period, the most popularly known industrial revolution was well underway driven by such personalities as Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and mechanisation through the discovery of the steam engine. Societies that took leadership and mastered the steam engine such as the British, formed empires that spanned across most of the globe. The introduction of mechanisation, and the understanding of economic forces, reshaped societies around industries, specialization and institutionalization as competition drove a new age focused on strategic advantage.
The success of our digital transformation is hinged on our leadership; individual, communal and political. We all have a role to play. The Digital Economy and the 4th Industrial Revolution places us at a sublime generational nexus, which we cannot ignore.
The early 20th Century saw the discovery of electricity and the transistor. This anchored the next industrial revolution, primarily involving devices, semi-conductor chips and (digital logic) technology introduced to enhance and improve industrial processes. The United States was at the heart of this 3rd revolution, which introduced the age of computing to the world. Personalities such as Thomas Edison (1847-1931), Graham Bell (1847-1942), Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) easily come to mind. Embedded within this industrial revolution is what is emerging and gaining recognition as a 4th Industrial revolution. Underscored with connectivity, this new wave is primarily driven by data.
There are various lessons that can be learnt from the prior revolutions that nations can take note of. For instance, in all these revolutions, the societies that mastered the pioneered invention and quickly innovated around it, became or had the possibility of becoming a world super power and in some cases subjugated most of the world that couldn’t effectively compete. Another interesting observation is the character of the incremental nature that each industrial revolution had from the prior. Each new revolution, accelerated and added efficiency to the prior. The mechanised industrial revolution enhanced the agrarian revolution making it capable to cultivate bigger tracts of land much faster. The technological revolution enabled the prior industrial revolutions’ mechanised machines to work faster and more autonomously. And the impending digital revolution will make use of data to further improve both the technology, mechanized and agrarian revolutions.
It is also important to note that each (industrial) revolution, although sparked by a particular invention, was sustained and enhanced through the application of that invention in innovative ways. The role of innovation in the wealth of nations can never be understated, and the chances of our generation participating in the impending digital revolution is hinged on our tech innovation capabilities.
The innovation process begins with the identification of an opportunity either through basic or applied research, experience or identification of a socio-economic need. The innovator then generates an idea of how to solve the problem using available resources, and how to harness the innovative opportunity. The innovative idea progressively moves from the many unstructured, to the few tested semi-structured, and finally to the structured final solution that bears the label of an innovation. Innovations then have to be placed and used within the market as products.
Within the African innovation landscape the process of ideation through to the development of an innovation and finally a product in the market, exposes our innovators to various challenges. Although such challenges exist, Africa is still a hotbed of innovations, particularly in the ICT sector, yet due to the poor diffusion and absorption of our own innovations as well as these systemic challenges, many of these innovations remain hidden.
As Kenya embarks on the definition of its Digital Economy programmes, particular emphasis needs to be drawn towards the central role of innovation, and securing the primary resources driving this particular industrial revolution – data. Securing local innovative advantage requires a clear and enforceable regime of intellectual capital. The role of the lawyers therefore is to take care of our stock of intellectual capital, which is at the heart of invention and innovation.
The Digital Economy Blueprint provides a conceptual framework that will drive the digital transformation of Kenya’s economy. The document is hinged on five pillars: Digital Government; Digital Business; Infrastructure; Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurship and Digital Skills and Values. The Blueprint also highlights the cross cutting issues that need to be considered for the success of a digital economy.
The Blueprint was developed by the Kenya National Communications Secretariat and is Kenya’s contribution in championing the growth of an African-wide digital economy. In May of this year, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the blueprint, in Kigali Rwanda, at the Transform Africa Summit. The blueprint is Kenya’s contribution to the Smart Africa Alliance initiative that is working to digitize the economies and trade of 24 countries across the continent. The Smart Africa Alliance aims to leverage on technology to create a single digital market in a region that enjoys a population of over 600 million people. The 24 member states are expected to adopt the Digital Economy blueprint and develop their respective country strategies.
The success of our digital transformation is hinged on our leadership; individual, communal and political. We all have a role to play. The Digital Economy and the 4th Industrial Revolution places us at a sublime generational nexus, which we cannot ignore. Future generations shall indeed hold us to account. We need to harness and protect our knowledge assets. Strategies around technology transfer need to be explored, effective partnerships and IP negotiations, that will eventually, at the end of the day secure the African piece of contribution in the new series of inventions of off-road technologies. (
—Writer is chair, Technical Working Group: Digital Economy Blueprint – Innovation Driven Entrepreneurship, a PhD candidate, UoN – Computer Science, and a member of the Tech Innovators Network (THiNK) TANK