Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Innovators

Really should have typed this up a while ago, but anyway…bygones!

I had two important things to do in Nairobi this past Monday, but since I wasn't getting in early, I figured I’d arrive in the city about noon, which would allow me to spend my time roaming through the Innovation & Enterprise Expo down at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), while I waited for people to get back from their lunch break at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH).

Didn’t know what to expect with regards to entrance fees… with me not trying to incur any unnecessary expenses (Thank God it was free!). The stands were arranged in two rings for the sake of convenience (one peripheral and the other central. I started out on the periphery and was quickly impressed by the wide array of projects on display. I’m glad there weren’t too many phone apps on display (…which seems to have gained a ridiculous amount of attention since the advent of M-Pesa), and the science was for the needs of the common mwananchi.

First and foremost, I got to meet Michael Otieno, the guy who is making a name for himself producing gift bags, envelopes and other products using water hyacinth. Fresh off his win at the Enablis Business Plan Competition, I actually got to see the quality of the product that is part of the gist around ‘the Hyacinth Economy’. So just like KICK (Kisumu Innovation Centre Kisumu) and the Carnivore Gardens did in 2006, he showed me that we really are sitting on something valuable with all this free hyacinth.

There were also other people there displaying Hyacinth furniture (which I’ve already seen before). What was particularly new about this project was the cushion covers, which were made of tanned fish skin. I’ll admit, the locally tanned product wasn’t too appealing, but the skins that were tanned with help from KIRDI (Kenya Industrial Research & Development Institute) are certainly something I wouldn’t mind having in my home.

Science Congress Groups (which are specifically High School Presentations) also showed much promise. They had displays of
  1. Extraction of Lemon Grass essence for use as a tea, insecticide, etc.
  2. Producing Potassium Alum from waste soda cans (at a cheaper price than is available in the market)
  3. A Natural UV + filter system for treating Grey water.
  4. Production of Biofuel from ‘Arbor vitae’

Other notable displays were:
  1. the HIV-EQAS Statistical software fronted by Ireri Mugambi; this was a Master’s project which now doubles as a PhD project and aims to give people a more informed choice when it comes to HIV testing and self-testing (which is soon to become a reality in Kenya)
  2. Tami Dye, the natural dye produced from the pungent ubiquitous weed Mexican Marigold. The dyed product on hand looked very beautiful and since I love all things ‘camel’ coloured, I’m partial to the colour of dye produced when Potassium Dichromate is used as a fixative agent.
  3. Nile Perch Fish Oil, made from waste fish viscera. It was scent free (thank goodness!) and apparently is just as good as the Cod Liver Oil that we currently have to import at a great cost; and it will also probably be a cheaper alternative to other Omega-3-fatty acid supplements currently in the market.
  4. Hydroponics: well they are currently only displaying their hydroponically grown barley…but 8-day old Barley sure did look promising. This group of individuals is growing the product without any visible substrate (fairly uncommon), and I’m not sure whether this will work against them, but I wish them all the best. It did look promising.
  5. Solar Tracker; it is quite the wonder that Kenya doesn’t utilize more solar power than it currently does, but perhaps that will change some day. At large production levels, this project perfectly goes hand-in-hand with a solar farm, imitating the behavior of a sunflower to maximize exposure of the solar cells to incident light.
  6. Briquettes – a group of students from a technical college were on hand to display their briquettes, which apparently burned cleaner and longer than typical charcoal. The briquettes were made from waste material (charcoal scraps, wood shavings, saw dust, leaf matter) and bound with soil and water. I wish they had shown up with actual Calorimetry data comparing the briquettes to ordinary charcoal, because currently most briquettes tend to release less energy when they burn….meaning they might only be worthwhile to mid-income (and above) level citizens who don’t fully rely on charcoal; NOT, the poor masses who really could do with either an equivalent or BETTER alternative to wood fuel
  7. Multi-use chair: the set up for this product was really simple, being built of wood and waste metallic water piping. Its default mode was a typical chair, but by simply pulling down on its back rest, it folded over into what could be used as a mini-ladder (2 steps), or a combo desk-seat for a small child…or it could even double up as a shoe-shiner’s work-stage.

It felt good to see stuff that actually addresses the need in this country. I have been ‘stewing’ ever since our current President made that decision about giving Standard One children laptops. I feel like Kenyans are hoping for a ‘magic bullet’ for our problems to arise from some child prodigies making apps that’ll sell for millions. Could it happen…sure! Is it likely to happen….NO!

Our true strength lies in innovation and the enterprising spirit of a people who maintain hope for a better future, both for themselves and this country as a whole. A re-imagining of our priorities and adequate funding for the projects I saw on hand (which are just an iota of the creativity being mustered in this country) will see us emulate our peers in China, India, Singapore and South Korea….in a Kenyan Style of course. Thus, I remain hopeful that the people whose job it is to steer policy and spending will remember which country they actually live in, and do right by their people.

God Bless

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