Innovation, entrepreneurship, culture, and exposure my observations from interaction with the university student developer community
Over the past two years the execution of bandwidth subsidy to universities under KENET, the Wezesha laptop subsidy project, the Tandaa grant project and the Pasha project has allowed us to meet with many Kenyans across the country.
What we are learning about product innovation from interacting with the developer community and in particular those in universities is very interesting. Please note that these are not the only groups we have met, but I single them out for purposes of this article.
I conclude that in order for us to develop the Triple Helix approach to innovation that involves involvement of Academia, Business and Government, more is required from all the partners in this process.
My thoughts are not empirically backed, but nevertheless may provide a basis for discussion.
- There is a strong predisposition towards developing applications for the mobile phone platform. This is not surprising as most connections are connected to the Internet
- Sometimes the product development team is really just one individual doing the architecting, software development testing and deployment. This same individual must struggle with dealing with business issues beyond the actual product development; things like getting and setting up a host environment for their product development.
- In 2008 – 2009, when we visited the various universities around the country on the laptop subsidy project, it was clear that except for those studying technology subjects specifically, ICT based product development was generally not a student wide pre-occupation.
- Many students were concerned that what they were being taught at university was not generally keeping with the latest advances in their chosen fields. When the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Dean of Computer Studies visited and gave an open lecture on the current practices in the teaching of computer science, it was amazing to observe the passion of the students who attended. This passion was evidenced from the questions they posed. It was also heartening to note the interest by faculty members as well. After all, CMU is indisputably one of the world leaders in the subject.
- There are some important skills sets that are not adequately taught in Kenya yet. This conclusion came out of general observation and is backed by two reports commissioned and released by the Kenya ICT Board i.e. the IBM Skills Audit Study and the Julisha study carried out by IDC.
As an example, the Kenya ICT Board is working with SAS the global business analytics multinational to commence training at the University of Nairobi and Strathmore University in Analytics. The skills issue is a tricky one in my view because developing specific skills can box the sector into a specific orientation.
My view has been that industry must work with academia on developing their specific needs, while universities deepen their research and development investment to develop leading edge students who can engineer design and create.
- During the various boot camps that I have attended, I and the team from the Kenya ICT have observed one other significant thing. The solutions and ideas have become more and more sophisticated over the boast three years. Initially students in universities would develop solutions mainly for dining hall and library management. This was perhaps a reflection of the students’ exposure levels. The typical highs school experience does not give much exposure except through what people read.
After all how would one know that you can develop a better system for scheduling transportation if all we have observed is matatus racing to pick up passengers; without any sense of collective schedule. But interestingly, we see product development feed off a wide pallet now. The Open Data website has provided more data sets that give students more to work with. Data sets such as government’s fiscal allocation by county should get good product development teams excited. This will only get better.
- Kenyan students still draw a lot of their inspiration and cues from what their leaders indicate as priorities. This is a great thing, but places a special burden of responsibility on leadership to signal correctly. Fortunately in the ICT sector, we observe that the efforts seem to be understood. Recently I was invited by the African Leadership Academy team to speak to high school students who were undertaking interviews to join this prestigious academy based in South Africa.
The interviews took place in Nairobi and brought together what would be arguably Kenya’s brightest high school students from all over Kenya. The questions posed to me were about the ICT Board projects and Konza. I however discerned that those who were from certain schools and more well off backgrounds tended to express a more engaged view of the opportunity. In fact this student from Strathmore came to me afterwards with very specific questions on ICT and finance. He indicated his ambition was to get into University of Pennsylvania.
These random observations, some of which require greater empirical validation (good subject for someone’s MBA research paper) have led me to the following simple conclusions.
- Exposure is a source of capital. Bandwidth availability and constant browsing is greatly benefiting the more knowledge hungry among our university students. This will only get better.
- The business community should open up its doors to internships and holiday work to enable students to gain exposure, which is priceless. Because of the constrains within the commercial workspace of head-count and finances, a discussion between government and the private sector about this would help so that the right incentives are created to allow this to foster.
- Business people as mentors. University students should not leave university without having had time with a senior corporate and business person. A product innovator will then develop greater understanding about how business runs from first-hand experience.
One observation from the nationwide Pasha training was that those who received training and applied for the grants and received the grant generally tend to do better than those who applied but had not gone through our training. In fact we now feel that training provided is of great value as an end in itself by developing capacity.
A detailed discussion on Pasha will be coming soon.
- I have tended to believe that our best students should be taken to the best schools and have their fees paid. The best schools should focus on more than just academics and act as centres of moulding future leaders.
These students should come out these schools completely exposed to academics, theatre, the arts, sports, and the world—Custodians of our cultural aspirations. This exposure is the basis for tomorrow’s businesses and management of the country’s affairs.