Monday, October 7, 2013

Appropriate Technology: What Kenya Really Needs!

I had the opportunity to attend BarCamp 2013, which was jointly held at NaiLab and the iHub sometimes late this past August. From previous internet searches of those two venues, I knew that they mostly dealt with ICT ventures, so I was a bit apprehensive initially about attending because I figured it would mainly centre on geek-speak for computer folk. However, they stated that the theme for the event would be Kenya’s 50 years thus far, and what we could expect from the next 50…so I figured the topics would be more inclusive.

Showed up to the venue, and I was impressed. It had one of those great open-layouts (that lately apparently seem to be the target of disparagers worldwide), and a diverse crowd in attendance – the majority being techies, of course. Admittedly, I did manage to find the one other Biology major in there (apart from me), and a Sociologist, which didn’t leave me feeling totally left out. But the majority of the event was techie-oriented: Apps, Google Glass, Cloud Computing, Developer Languages, Blogging…

Yeah, yeah, I get that all this stuff is important; but I can’t help but feel that Kenya as a whole is missing the boat here. Seems like ever since Mobile money transfers blew up, everybody’s being trying to replicate MPesa’s success. Mpesa really only worked because, like other people noticed, our banking system was pretty crappy to start with and was not widespread enough to accommodate the needs of the common mwananchi. To see everyone running into Apps assumes a few things that just aren’t part of the mix here: 1) Smart Phone penetration can’t possibly be more than 15% out here (mulika-mwizi is the order of the day; 2) How many people do you know around here who actually buy Apps? The willingness - and market for that matter - is pretty overestimated!

That in a nutshell, is what I feel ails this country’s current outlook on things. Sure, everyone wants to have First World aspirations, but it’s hard to tie that to the reality that we currently find ourselves in.

  1. We want free maternity and obstetric care for our fledgling mothers, but don’t bother to get rid of polygamy or reduce the markedly high average birth rate (5 kids per family). We don’t even add to the the number of professionals or health facilities, stretched as they already are, that are meant to deal with the sudden influx of new patients
  2. We want to give our children laptops to aid with their learning, without appreciating that a lot of children are actually learning in schools that have no walls to speak of (in extreme cases, under trees).
  3. We award our Members of Parliament First World salaries in a country with a meager Third World GDP, whilst refusing to effect pay rises for essential staff like Doctors, Nurses, Police, Teachers, Pilots, Firemen, etc.
I can’t think of a time when we needed to focus more on Appropriate Technology than at this current juncture. As I stood there amongst the iHub attendees, I couldn’t help but think that two of Kenya’s biggest problems were a mere kilometers from where we were sited: KIBERA (a slum of high regard with poverty tourism buffs) and the Nairobi River (& Dam), a vastly polluted water catchment, which was initially meant to provide a water solution for Nairobians. Like it or not, issues of pollution and public health are ubiquitous and not things we can escape: sure, I can hide myself from the computer revolution as much as I choose to, but there’s no place I can run to escape the ravages of what someone else inadvertently puts out into our common environment, whether I end up inhaling, drinking or encountering it in some other way. For me, that’s where we need to invest most of our efforts.

And it’s not like there isn’t profit in any of these ventures either. I’m reminded of the example of Sweden, which, being so efficient at recycling its trash and burning up remnants for energy co-generation, has now run out of trash and has to ship some in from a neighbouring country. Germany, a country smaller than my own, which makes use of so much solar energy to offset its other energy sources (wintry weather not withstanding), yet, Kenya, bathed in most of its areas by a scorching sun has barely gotten off the ground with solar energy. This very same Kenya that is contemplating a future with Nuclear Energy when it has barely even exploited its vast Geothermal capabilities.

I was happy to see some attempts at Appropriate Tech in terms of a ‘Seawater Greenhouse’ type project, and Geographical Information Systems (GIS), which should have been bigger in Kenya than it currently is. Last, but not least, as a bit of a last minute entry I intended to give a talk on my ‘Hyacinth Economy’ hypothesis, but time run out on that one. In any case, I feel that in the next few days I’ll be getting the chance to present it to an academic board of sorts so that I might get some form of R&D assistance. I don’t know what’s in store, but I’m really looking forward to it.

Hope all things go well.
God Bless

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