Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Space research and mobile tech: Kenya's next 50 years

By Calestous Juma, Harvard Kennedy School
updated 2:57 AM EST, Fri December 13, 2013
Technology can drive economic transformation in Kenya, says Calestous Juma.<!-- -->
</br>Pictured, Konza Techno City is a development planned by the Kenyan government to foster the growth of the country's technology industry. Technology can drive economic transformation in Kenya, says Calestous Juma.
Pictured, Konza Techno City is a development planned by the Kenyan government to foster the growth of the country's technology industry.
HIDE CAPTION
High-tech future
Independence
Natural resources
iHub
Mobile money
Kenya turns 50
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kenya is celebrating 50 years of independence
  • Tech and innovation can drive country's future, says Calestous Juma
  • Needs to build new research universities and expand its engineering education
  • A space program can aid national development, Juma argues

Editor's note: Born in Kenya, Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School. He co-chairs the African Union's High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation. He is author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are solely his.

(CNN) -- As Kenya celebrates 50 years of independence, many will be looking back on the events of the last half century, which saw country shake off British colonialism to carve its own identity. But it is also a time to look ahead to the next 50 years, and how technology can shape a new Kenya.

Kenya's 50th independence celebrations come at a moment of great economic promise for the continent. Much of the growth has been driven by export of raw materials, investment in infrastructure and expansion of trade in consumer goods.

Calestous Juma
Calestous Juma

The challenge for the future, however, is building a technological foundation for economic transformation. Probably Kenya's most important technological achievement was pioneering the world-first mobile money transfer system. The transformative innovation is part of a larger revolution in mobile banking.

Read more: Tech cities and mega dams: Africa's giant infrastructure projects

Kenya has contributed to the global mobile wallet market that is expanding exponentially. The market is projected to $5.25 billion in 2020 and will be driven by the rapid adoption of smartphones.

In its vision to become a middle-income country by 2030, Kenya has singled out scientific and technological advancement as a key driver for growth. Achieving this goal will require the country to do in other sectors what it has done for mobile money transfer and allied financial activities.

Professor on agricultural innovation
Africa's tech innovation
Africa's technology potential

The first step for Kenya is to consolidate the gains already made in mobile technology. There are already plans underway to promote innovation in mobile technology. But these efforts need high-level political commitment to define the country as a world leader in the extension of mobile technology to other sectors.

The key to doing this is building new research universities whose curriculum and teaching are directly influenced by the evolution of the mobile industry. Kenya has recently created the Multimedia University, which was incubated by the ministry of telecommunications. But this university needs to be more directly integrated into the telecommunications sector with a clear focus on advancing all aspects of the mobile revolution.

Read more: Africa's super telescopes 'will inspire science boom'

Kenya can learn from other countries, such as South Korea, as it embarks on a technological path. In the early 1960s South Korea's main exports included wigs and false teeth. Its success as an industrial nation is largely a result of investing in new research institutions and universities.

Kenya needs to embark on a more ambitious technological initiative that can help to galvanize public attention and support the foundation for long-term economic development. One obvious next step for the country is geographic information science and technology. The Kenya Parliament has already passed a motion calling for the creation of a space sector for the country. Drafts of a policy, strategy and bill for creating the sector already exist.

The benefits of such an initiative would be profound. It could generate vital data for planning and decision-making in a wide range of areas such as environmental management, business planning and security. It could also help stimulate the creation of new firms marketing technologies and services.

Read more: Africa's new high-tech cities

Data generated by the space program would be distributed through existing mobile networks and would add value to current investments such as the fiber-optic backbone. Such a program could help strengthen Kenya's role as a regional technology hub. Such a space program could also help Kenya monitor climate change and support decisions on critical regional resources such as Lake Victoria.

Kenya is at a critical juncture where it has no alternative but to find new pathways for technological leapfrogging.
Calestous Juma

Developing a space sector is not just a vanity effort but a critical investment for national development. Advances in technology are dramatically lowering the cost of running such a program. In fact, several sub-Saharan African countries have space plans or programs, of which Nigeria is the most advanced.

Read more: How African innovation can take on the world

A technological vision of Kenya's future demands at least two critical activities. First, the country will need to significantly expand its engineering education. One way to do this is to upgrade engineering-based training institutes in line ministries into graduate training institutes or research universities.

Second, the presidency will need to be supported on a regular basis by the best available science and technology advice. Such advice will need to be managed by an office of science and technology advice, directly answerable to the head of state.

Kenya is at a critical juncture where it has no alternative but to find new pathways for technological leapfrogging. The alternative is falling behind as other players in the region start to invest in moving to new technological frontiers. At 50, the country is overdue to reinvent itself using technological innovation as the engine of economic transformation.

Follow Calestous Juma on Twitter @calestous

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Calestous Juma.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Through a variety of exhibitions including one signed off by the artist himself, Nigeria is presenting J.D. Okhai Ojeikere to the world one last time.
updated 1:12 PM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
Mulatu Astake may be the father of a musical genre: Ethio-jazz. But when he talks about the art form, he tends to focus on its scientific merits.
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
U.S. response to Ebola is key for setting global example, writes global health advocate Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 8:39 AM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
ALHAJI MUSTAPHA OTI BOATENG
Using his deep-rooted knowlege of herbs, savvy entrepreneur Alhaji Mustapha Oti Boateng had an idea to help his fellow Ghanaians.
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
One of the most debilitating medical conditions in sub-Saharan Africa isn't fatal. In fact, it's easily curable.
updated 10:00 AM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
Nigerian architect Olajumoke Adenowo reveals her tips for success, mentorship and what she'd like to do next.
updated 6:19 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
updated 6:19 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Developers, designers and big thinkers gather together on the rooftop of the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos to discuss ideas.
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
updated 5:48 AM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
Amos Wekesa has seen a lot of changes in his country. Today, the self-made millionaire oversees Great Lakes Safaris, one of the largest tour operators in Uganda.
updated 6:10 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Photographer Ernest Cole made it his life mission to capture the injustice of apartheid in South Africa.
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
In the largely male-dominated world of the motorsport, South African superbike racer Janine Davies is an anomaly.
updated 1:48 PM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Athi-Patra Ruga,
For anyone that needs convincing that African art is the next big thing, they need look no further than 1:54, the London-based contemporary African art fair.
updated 9:35 AM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
He's one of Malawi's best abstract artists and now the 40-year-old dreamer is revealing his journey in to the world of art.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT