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
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 0757 GMT (1557 HKT)
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
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
February 17, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1106 GMT (1906 HKT)
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT