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I Dreamed of Kenya

Image result for lion king simba mufasa

We know who we are but not what we may be – William Shakespeare

This post is a bit radical in that it draws from the history of other African countries and nations in the hope that their history will inform Kenyan choices going into elections next month. No nation lacks aspects of their history that are less than savoury and so this post might at times seem like pointing out the speck in our African brothers eyes. So to other Afro-centrists, please do not interpret this as a pharisaical prayer not to become like the publican. No this is standard African peer review. Hopefully of the type that spurs improved action and governance.

My central and persistent thesis in this election is that Kenya is at a junction in its history. This junction is fundamental and defining as far as Kenya’s national identity is concerned. The choice we make in 2017 will define how we respond to any challenges in future. Therefore we need to make a prudent decision. That being said, let us dig in by studying the histories of other African nations.

  1. South Africa

In South Africa in 2009 a frail, old Nelson Mandela went round the country campaigning for Jacob Zuma. The reason for this was that that Mandela is a Xhosa, same as Thabo Mbeki. Zuma on the other hand, is a Zulu and was the foremost Zulu in the ANC. Zuma was allowed to run on an ANC platform. There was a marginal Zulu grouping known as the Inkatha Freedom Party. At the time of the 2009 election the rhetoric surrounding the IFP was getting increasingly violent. This violence in my opinion was partially based on Zulu dominance a la King Shaka. Granted, the IFP only had marginal electoral support but if Zuma had not been voted in, the IFP would have gained legitimacy in the eyes of many Zulu who would have switched from ANC to IFP.

To come back to present day affairs, it is generally acknowledged around the globe, and within South Africa that Jacob Zuma has been less than ideal for South Africa. The generation that did not interact with the system of apartheid has no allegiance to the ANC. As a result Cyril Ramaphosa, another Xhosa, might be named as Zuma’s replacement. Neither the late great Nelson Mandela nor Thabo Mbeki were neophytes at nation-building. They must have known that Zuma was a less-than-ideal candidate. But like true statesmen interested in a thriving stable South Africa, it was politically expedient to do so. They also knew that as part of the elite, it was not their place to make that decision. This decision to turn away from the Zulu or Zuma had to come from the electorate itself. South Africa is now dealing with much more substantive political issues than ethnic rifts within the ANC coalition. Malema vs Ramaphosa is much more to my liking than Buthelezi Mangosuthu vs Mbeki, if you get what I mean.

Of what relevance is this to Kenya in 2017? For starters it must be said that advanced democracies are beginning to define democracy not only as “Everyone has their say” but also as “Everyone has their day.” This is why Mandela and Mbeki are not neophytes at nation-building and why Raila deserves the same benefit of doubt that Zuma received. It is my humble submission that a Raila presidency would not be as reprobate as Zuma’s. Moreover Kibaki’s Anglo-Leasing scandals should clear our imagination of any illusion that a Raila presidency will be all that and a bag of chips. For goodness sake, even this team digitalis finding it hard going. Application of the simple principle of accountability to the electorate at the ballot should be enough to weed out bad leaders by the ballot. Otherwise our fledgling democracy would not even be “government of the people, for the people, by the people.”

But the main point to be drawn from this history is that the call to shunt Raila and the Luo aside was not and is not one for our political elites to make. This decision should come from the electorate. 2013 gave us a golden chance to get over our ethnicity issues once and for all, but we spurned the opportunity.  Metaphorically speaking, we chose to continue marching around our mountain of ethnicity for another 40 years. As a result, our politics will continue to be identity-based instead of issue based for the foreseeable future.

  1. Nigeria

Once upon a time an astute analyst commented that Kenya and Nigeria were twins separated at birth. At first glance the similarities may appear to be superficial and hilarious, given our population sizes and mineral deposits, but you only need to drive in Lagos and Nairobi rush-hour traffic to feel the similarities. A closer look however reveals an uncanny resemblance.

Nigeria as a state was defined as balancing the requirements of three main political groupings, namely the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Igbo. Perhaps to give a bit of background, The Hausa-Fulani are northern and originally more nomadic. The Yoruba are centred in the south-west whereas the Igbo are centred in the south-east. Also, you could almost say that the Igbo are the Kikuyu of Nigeria in terms of business and trade acumen while the Yoruba are the Luo of Nigeria in terms of being flashy, educated, white-collar professionals. Perhaps to stretch our analogy a bit to fill out the triangle, the Hausa-Fulani would be the Kalenjin of Nigeria.

Now as you would well know from history, the triangle is the least stable political structure of all. So much so that it is completely contrary to nation-building efforts to find accurate census figures of these three populations who are all scattered across Nigeria. Nigeria’s history and political discourse has to the best of my knowledge been dominated by the interactions between these three groupings. This triangle came apart during the Biafran War, an event which is still a political hot potato 50 years after its outbreak. Nigerian social media also regularly has heated and vitriolic tribal arguments much like Kenya. In short Nigeria’s national identity is yet to come to grips with the Biafran War.

Given Nigeria’s history, I have often wondered what greases and cools Nigeria’s political engine. And then it hit me, off course they have oil! And well, their unemployment is at around 14% compared to ours at 39%. So apples to apples, we both have political triangles. But apples to oranges Nigeria has its unemployment under the 20’s and oil revenues to boot. These are 2 luxuries we as Kenya do not have. This makes our economic policy making twice if not thrice as much in urgent need of solid job-creation.

Again we must ask ourselves, exactly how does this affect cocoa production in Ghana? For starters, this must not be interpreted as agitating for a secessionist Biafran or Luo state. Not at all. I quite like the Kenyan map and borders as they are. (Thank you very much for that question.) The point here is that, our political triangle must be recognised for the problem that it is towards building a strong cohesive Kenyan national identity. Our continued tribal bigotry will have consequences whether we like it or not. Attempts to bury our head in the sand about its existence, or offer stopgap measures without dealing with the problem itself will only further exacerbate a bad problem.

We could go on and on about how DRC in the 50’s had Africa’s largest middle class; and how Tanzania is ensuring local value addition of their minerals; or how our unemployment is a ticking time bomb which needs to be dealt with. But rather than make you read an additional few hundred words, we will stop there for now. It is my fervent hope and prayer that this ‘processed’ history of Nigeria and South Africa will inform our choices going into the election this August.

NASA Tibim!


Wanted: Parttime CMO

An innovative startup within Kenya’s banking compliance technology space is looking to hire a parttime Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) to head up their Sales and Marketing unit.

The CMO will report directly to the CEO and will be responsible for the following deliverables:

Meeting enterprise fintech sales targets within Kenya

Developing a lead pipeline and sales process

Determining marketing strategies, channels and sales operations for the company in its desired markets

Interfacing with the technology team to ensure clients and products are kept ahead of the technology curve.

The desired candidate should possess the following skills and requirements:

Demonstrable ability in closing enterprise technology sales in East Africa

An undergraduate degree in either commerce, computer science or IT-related fields. Further certification within marketing would be an added advantage.

Experience in either financial technology sales or banking technology sales

A general understanding of banking systems and processes

An understanding of regulatory and compliance requirements would be an added advantage

An unhealthy disregard for the status quo and the big boys such as Oracle and SAS.

Applicants should send their cv’s to by the 1st of September 2016. The cv’s should be accompanied by a go-to-market strategy containing action points for immediate execution within their first hundred days.

This Side of the Mara: Musings on Men, Women, Merit and Property

So it’s February again and love is in the air. Word has it that there has been brisk trade in red items of clothing across town. A very, very close friend of mine who works with a flower farm told me that their February sales account for a very significant percentage of annual sales. Be that as it may, I would want to look at some issues relating with the desired cause and end result of all the love that will be going around – that is marriage.

Now, the act of marrying or getting married in some ways has similarities with the crossing of the Mara. Please, do not take this as an insult. If offended, please accept my humble apologies. It’s just that the parallels between “The Crossing” and “The Decision” appear to be so many. It is irreversible, life changing, educative and hard-wired into our nature. Additionally the risks involved for both parties are so high that they can result in the loss of limb, life or both for either party. Besides, don’t Mara and marriage sound similar? No? Not even a little? Ok, let me explain my reasoning.

I mean, for the hapless wildebeest that chooses to cross and finds itself in the jaws of a crocodile that is the sad end of its story. For the croc, it’s just another well-prepared meal. Does not the Good Book say that by a whorish woman a man is turned into a piece of bread? The reverse is also sadly true in that a bad husband could very easily destroy a woman’s career, not to mention wrecking what could have been a happy stable family unit. Images of Magu and Timberlake haunt our collective memory as an example of this outcome.

Another parallel between the two situations is that, just because so many others are ‘taking the plunge’ does not necessarily mean that your time to do so has come. Just because Tom, Dick and Harriet have all crossed at Point X does not necessarily mean that oh gosh, you too must cross at Point X. Not necessarily. It is generally understood that men have an ideal time for settling down. It’s a ka-spot after the early days of #TheStruggle and before serious wealth and positions start checking in. Too early into #TheStruggle and the guy could easily get commitment hang-ups later on. He begins to feel that he sold himself short and deserves someone more up to his acquired status. Too late into wealth/responsibility and the twain will not be a match; the guy will be too set in his ways to change while the lady won’t connect with the guy upstairs and is likely to end up using the words “Tutauliza Baba Nani” too frequently. This is just not cool at all.

For the girl, I have always felt that a lady matures after having worked for a year or two. This helps her to understand the dynamics of workplaces, and she acquires a taste for her own money. Off course this sets the bar higher for the lad who decides to woo her. But this is for the better. Any earlier than this and there will be differences in understanding between the twain.

The main difference between the wildebeest ‘crossing’ and the human ‘crossing’ is that we (are supposed to) apply rationality to our crossing. God gave man free will and rationality. You can choose whether you want to cross ‘upstream’ or ‘downstream’. You can choose to turn back midstream. (Horror of horrors!) Most importantly, you choose who you want to lead across the river, or who you want to follow across the river. You can discuss the findings of others who have gone before you to see what works and what doesn’t. They may tell you that a given Point X has been found to be full of crocodiles! (We shall not name names or point fingers.) For we who subscribe to Christian ideals, the example of the Lord Jesus Christ and Proverbs 31 provide very high standards which can guide us in this all important choice. This choice has far reaching implications on your eternal destination, life expectancy, children’s success chances, career achievements, legacy, and general satisfaction in life.

But the main slant of this post has more to do with life after the crossing as opposed to the crossing itself.

Once upon a time I came across an article on HR compensation in India. The article said that compensation in India is pegged on the assumption of a double-income family. I believe that this applies in the US also where the legend of John Wayne, the traditional tough, independent man is slowly disappearing. Based on my brief corporate experience, Kenyan compensation assumptions do not vary too far from India and the US. This has direct domestic implications for anyone who desires to be an all-round family man.

African culture dictates that the man is the head of the home. However, this cultural premise no longer matches the realities of modern life, especially in service and marketing oriented industries. Kenyan women are ‘leaning in’ and earning as much if not more than Kenyan men. Additionally, population growth has subdivided patriarchal patrimonies in many localities into barely enough space to build or in some cases to bury. The traditional African man, who was originally backed by a culture which invests title in the male, has been caught flat footed. As a result, whereas he was once fully sure of his economic wherewithal, he may now fear his woman. The blend of these factors has caused the African man to hesitantly found his domestic authority on his financial capacity among other things. Unfortunately for him, the minute he premises his right to leadership on financial strength, he surrenders his masculinity to his boss/clients/donors should tectonic career changes occur.

The fact of the matter is that authority is God-given, whether domestic or elsewhere. Now, this is not to say that a man can be excused from providing excellently for his family. We shall graciously assume that your typical Kenyan man dearly loves his family and does his best to provide for them. By virtue of the fact that the man’s headship comes from the Bible, even when he does provide excellently, he should still listen to his wife, perhaps even moreso given the economic imbalance. Failure to observe this discipline is what causes men grief once their wives get more money than had originally been bargained for. Conversely, the good wife must likewise not be frivolous in her pecuniary requirements.

On the extreme flip side of this coin lies the situation in which a fellow happens to ‘marry up’. How does a man retain his dignity when he marries into money, himself having come from more modest circumstances? To answer this question, let us look at the last constitutional issue which Moses dealt with before climbing Mount Nebo. A certain man named Zelophehad, of the tribe of Mannaseh, had sired only daughters. The resultant question was of this sort, would Zelophehad’s name die out because he did not have sons, or how would this be resolved? Israel awaited the ruling on this matter with bated breath. God told Moses “You shall surely give them (Zelophehad’s daughters) an inheritance among their brethren.” It is interesting that whenever God uses the word ‘surely’, it would do one well to hearken to what follows.

In the generation immediately succeeding the occupation of the Promised Land, Caleb exercised his constitutional right and bequeathed his daughter, Achsah, some very large tracts of land. However, like a true son of Jacob, he left the best part to himself, namely the springs of water. Achsah, like any good daughter, tugged at her father’s heartstrings and got those too from him. Charles Spurgeon wrote a very interesting sermon on this text and commissioned us to ask our Father who art in heaven, for some springs of water too.

So how is this related to ‘marrying up’? Israel’s first judge after Joshua and Caleb’s generation ceded authority was none other than Othniel, Caleb’s son-in-law via Achsah. He ‘married up’ but he also ‘leveled up’ on merit, or more accurately, militarily. Othniel appears to have been a man with his head in the right place, and his heart neatly tucked away by Achsah. Assuming that it was under his leadership that Judah conquered Gaza, Askelon and Ekron (cities which were under Philistine rule in Eli’s time), then Othniel was no military lightweight. Imagine Othniel facing Caleb and telling him that he was interested in Achsah. There’s not much one can tell a grizzly old warrior like that. Words just wouldn’t cut it (pun intended) for him.

The seminal book ‘The Startup Nation’ outlines the possible effects had the Lord given a contrary ruling. It details how MENA has short-changed its womenfolk and has thereby deprived itself of half its intellectual firepower. Contemporary wisdom shows that societal development can be measured by the liberties which a society’s womenfolk have. MENA, by belittling its women, effectively reduced academic and corporate competition by half. But then again, when one owns thousands of oil wells, not much innovation is really required.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to basic anthropology. We are all made in the image of God. Every time we have affirmed this fact by law we have multiplied our society’s productivity. Research shows that corporate boards containing women consistently trounce strictly male-dominated boards. When slavery was eliminated, the productivity of society jumped. But that is another story for another day.

To all the men who read this article, I wish you headship, strength and wisdom!

John Sculley is Coming to Town!

Allow me to post my first critical piece.

I was trawling Google News the other day when a headline jumped out at me. “Former Apple CEO to launch Obi Mobiles in Kenya,” it read. Being a technophile, I was on the page before you could say “Jack Robinson.” According to the article, a former Apple CEO by the name of John Sculley, will be in Nairobi to launch a low-end smartphone called Obi Mobile. John Sculley is the man who shunted Steve Jobs out of Apple. Steve Jobs is the man who arguably created the smartphone. As the British would say, “This is a bit rich”.

For anybody familiar with the history of Silicon Valley, the name John Sculley sets off alarm bells in their head. To his credit, John Sculley accomplished some financially sound and reasonable things while at Apple. But he threw Steve Jobs out of his own company. The back story goes like this.

John Sculley accomplished some ground-breaking things as a marketing head at Pepsi. He literally put Pepsi in the game versus Coke from scratch. Now in the FMCG world, that is a huge achievement in and of itself. Some of the advertising formulas he pioneered against Coke were used by Pepsi for over 3 decades. He also turned around their food division from loss-making territory (83 million dollar revenues and 16 million dollar losses) to the most profitable division in the southern hemisphere (400 million dollar revenues and 30 million dollar profits).  So to Sculley’s credit he was a hotshot in those days, one of those corporate rock-stars who get head-hunted for major positions. As a sidenote, Sculley was also the son-in-law to Don Kendall, CEO of Pepsi Co from 1971 to 1986. Venkatesh Rao would most certainly have a couple of things to say about this.

Steve Jobs picked up on Sculley’s abilities and sold him the job of selling the personal computer to America. Jobs used that signature line immortalised in geek-speak, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Sculley was sold and he jumped ship from Pepsi to Apple where he committed the crime many techies will remember him for.

Far be it from me to imply that Steve Jobs was by any means a saint. Jobs was NOT an easy man to work with. At the time of his first departure from Apple in the 80’s he had been responsible for 3 failed products. If the Macintosh failed he would have been going onto his fourth. And unfortunately Sculley would have been the fall guy. So this ‘clash of titans’ was inevitable at the time. On the other hand, given Silicon Valley’s new-fangled acceptance of failure, and the runaway success the Mac and Windows have had, Steve Jobs was ahead of his time and should have been backed.

They say that by the time of his final departure as a result of a rather aggressive form of cancer, Jobs’ nurse had been changed a flipping 67 times. 67 nurses threw their hands up at this guy in all of a few months! Even after his return to Apple in the 90’s, his deadlines were tight, his attention to detail microscopic and his demands gargantuan. But you know what? Steve Jobs both shipped and sold3, setting him apart as a very rare calibre of technophile. Courtesy of him we have the modern GUI, iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Additionally Apple is among the largest tech stocks and brands in the world today. So much so that Carl Icahn considers it vital to provide his advice on the stock. Come to think of it Carl Icahn and John Sculley are in a way the same kettle of fish.

In the interim period between Jobs leaving Apple and ‘The Return of the King’ he matured as a manager-innovator and produced some interesting results. He worked in and on Pixar which is responsible for some of the best animations in the market in the ‘recent past’ such as Up, Shrek, the Toy Story’s series, the Finding Nemo series and so on. Interestingly, Pixar incorporates facial expression research written about by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink1. Jobs also built up a company called NeXt which was acquired by Apple in 1996. It was via this acquisition that Jobs returned to Apple.

Looking back at the period between the Macintosh in ’86 and the iPhone in the noughties, allow me to give my hypothesis on how things turned out. The computer interface which you use today, (likely Windows) is called a graphical user interface (GUI) in geek-speak. Back in the 80’s the GUI was a revolutionary leap in computing from cursor-based consoles which basically required users to type in strange memorised commands. This GUI-based approach to computing was instrumental in the runaway success of the personal computer in the 90’s. 2 people recognised this in the 80’s namely Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Jobs was first off the blocks with the Macintosh GUI. His exit from Apple severely hampered his vision for the development of the PC. We all know how Bill Gates’ story turned out. In retrospect, this general outcome was good because it allowed the development of a separate hardware industry with Intel, AMD and so forth. It is possible that if Steve Jobs had had his way then, Apple might have reigned supreme over both the hardware and the software sections of the computer industry. This would have stifled innovation in both areas.

My hypothesis is that Jobs, being the tinkerer that he was, and having been one of the real pioneers behind the GUI, was the first person to recognise the implications of the convergence of a number of factors:

  1. The rapid miniaturisation of the feature phone (kina 3310 and Sagem)
  2. The feature phone’s rapidly increasing computing power
  3. The feature phone having crossed a certain threshold of computational power2

For Jobs this meant that the feature phone was ready for a more advanced GUI. It must have been déjà vu to him, a replay of the 80’s script but with a (happily) different cast. This was new product time and another shot at world domination. Shortly thereafter the iPhone and the iPad appeared.

This brings us to what I find to be the oft-antagonistic relationship between innovation and the organisation. On one extreme we have the patron and the craftsman working together, while on the other extreme we have the craftsman producing innovation in spite of the efforts of the organisation. Somewhere in the middle we get the Microsoft model where the craftsman is the patron. It’s a very sweet spot, and sadly to say very rare.

A sterling example of patron-craftsman synergy was Alfred P. Sloan and Charles F. Kettering of General Motors (GM) in its halcyon days. Sloane built General Motor’s into the industrial juggernaut that it was in the 60’s and 70’s. GM itself was to some extent built around its research labs. GM’s research labs were built around the genius of one man called Charles F. Kettering. Now Alfred P. Sloane said that a man who can produce exceptional results/innovations is one out of ten. The man who can produce results/innovations regularly is one out of a hundred and he man who can produce exceptional results/innovations all the time is one in a thousand. We are lucky that Sloan recognised just how exceptional Kettering was and built GM Labs around him. Results abound for us to see. Besides GM’s domination of the US auto industry till the 80’s, Kettering holds 186 patents to his name.

You may wonder why I seem vitriolic towards Sculley. The reasoning goes like this. Jobs and Sculley are on the other end of the spectrum where the craftsman and the patron work at cross-purposes to one other. Innovation is an art and the domain of the artist. The source of art and innovation is often solitary confinement with the medium of expression. The counter-intuitive thing about this solitariness is that art/innovation is meant for public consumption. However good the artist/artisan gets, there comes a time when he/she must finally reveal his art to the public. This point is critical because he must at that point deal with the world’s perception of his art. Jobs’ innovative art form of the GUI and the PC were shut down by Sculley despite them being exactly what was needed at that time. That Intel and Microsoft are each multi-billion dollar companies to this day is testament to this fact.

So to cut a long ‘rant’ short, if the execs at Obi Mobile were really serious about their business, they should have been a lot more discerning in their choice of brand ambassador.

  1. That research identified the various facial muscles related to different attitudes and emotions. This explains why the characters in animations have such clear personalities and communicate so well.
  2. As a matter of fact, the reason that Jobs’ Macintosh PC bombed before he was tossed out of Apple was because the Mac’s GUI consumed too much computing power. PC’s were not yet ready for that kind of interaction. It was like running Windows Vista OS on a Pentium 1.
  3. Shipping is an engineering term for getting a product completed on time (and under budget). This is normally a feat especially in consumer electronics where product cycles compete with their customers’ brief attention spans vis a vis the latest fad in electronics. Engineers who can sell, whether to the mass market or to limited niches, are a very rare breed. Engineers who can both ship and sell are the rarest breed of all and as they say, worth their weight in gold.

The Brain Trust

So on New Year’s Day, I found myself trawling the interwebs looking for some inspiration. It’s just that sometimes, as Eminem would say, “You’ve gotta find that inner strength… and get that motivation…” So I ended up reading this interview given by Charles Townes to Charles Townes is the scientist responsible for the invention of maser, laser and outer space exploration via radio frequency analysis. It’s a very remarkable interview by the Nobel Prize Winner. He was also part of the overview team for getting Neil Armstrong onto the moon in 1969 and has provided advisory support in SALT talks. Seeing as 2014’s KCPE results had recently come out, it got me thinking about a particular gap in our education system.

We are seriously under-harnessing our best and our brightest.

The critical success factor for nations nowadays is what we might call the brain trust, ie the skills and intellectual firepower that can be marshalled for any given issue. It is said that Germany has an annual meeting of about 300 economists every year who debate the policy requirements of the nation. It is no wonder that they own Europe. In short, if we are to fully take advantage of our resources and the opportunities around us, we must harness the brain trust available to us. There is biblical precedence for this. Israel’s tribe of Levi were their lawyers, judges, health scientists and advised kings and governments.

There is a very interesting link on Quora on what life is like for very intelligent people. Quora is a site which crowd-sources answers, experience and expertise. As one person put it, “You go to Google to get an answer. You go to Quora to get a response.”  Many respondents on that particular question went to schools for gifted children. This is very useful because one answer points out that while normal people have trouble figuring things out, geniuses have trouble fitting in. So this kind of environment, ie schools for the gifted, is a safe environment for them to nurture their gift instead of burying it in the sand. Otherwise all their brainpower could easily go to waste cooking up mischief and so forth.

There was an article somewhere on the interwebs about a young fellow who graduated post-doctorate from MIT at the tender age of 16 or so. And is allowed to meander around campus and do his own research. That is important. A fellow like that has difficulties relating to the rest of us lesser mortals. Big Bang Theory certainly makes that clear to us. (God bless their souls!) A fellow like that may produce only 2 papers in his life, but would be of ground-breaking scope similar to Einstein’s e=mc^2. The sooner he produces those papers the better 🙂

Brain drain is real.

Case in point is Equity’s Wings to Fly program, especially the part used to airlift Kenyans into American universities. The architect behind wings to Fly is one exceptional man by the name of Mr. C.S. Khaemba who was once the principal of Alliance High School (AHS). He mastered the art of getting students into Ivy League colleges, then exported this art to Equity Bank. Unfortunately for us, a statistically significant number of our best and brightest always flew out to the States to pursue studies and ended up staying there. In 2008 for example the number one at AHS was an absolute genius called Sammy Sambu. Sambu was never defeated in academics in high school. The only time this happened, he had been out on an exchange program in the US for most of the term. The following term, he was back at the top. He went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, has completed his Master’s studies there and might be part of the faculty of either MIT or Harvard (as I ponder the meaning of my life lol).

Another example of this brain drain is another old boy of AHS who studied his undergrad in either Boston or Philadelphia. He must have studied cryptography or the like because from there he went on to work at either the Pentagon or the CIA. Nowadays when he visits his mother he arrives unannounced. He cannot tell his mother that he’s around. I must say that sounds like an interesting life. (Ding dong! Haiya ni wewe!)

There was a class-mate in high school with whom I used to spar intellectually. (Not Sammy Sambu!) We singled each other out as personal hate-figures on the basketball court in the very first month of high school! Such competition can be healthy. He had been to a Montessori school early in his education, while I had spent a portion of my childhood buried in Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys, a few encyclopaedias and so forth. So upon entering high school, our level of exposure to the outside world was a tad higher than the majority of our classmates. The point here is that his early training made a difference in him. As we speak he is an aspiring polymath in the US. His contributions will likely benefit the US more than Kenya.

Once upon a time I managed to get some significant face-time with our associate pastor, who is a very widely travelled man. He told me he has routinely met with Kenyan geniuses who look back on 20 years of research in foreign lands and so forth. One told him with tears in his eyes that he wished he had developed the motherland. The 2 founders of KEMRI were other old boys of AHS who realised that they could do much more for their country by coming and building a medical research institute that caters to the needs of a tropical environment and so forth. Kudos to them.

This is not to say that Kenyans living outside the country are wrong in any way. As a child of educationists, I can authoritatively say Moi’s disdain for matters academic or progressive was a serious encumberment.  I would definitely not have minded a more conducive environment for academicians and educationists locally.

In his book Invention, Norbert Wiener discusses how ground breaking inventions and innovations come around. There has to be a conducive environment for this kind of thing. Universities, research and development budgets, intellectual discussion forums and so forth. As a son of generations of educationists, I know that a considerable portion of the blame for this sad state of affairs lies in the mismanagement of education under the Moi regime. Kibaki in his characteristically quiet way swiftly went about correcting this, licencing myriad universities.

Recently, India managed to get a space mission in orbit around Mars. On a shoe string budget. This tweet captures the poignancy of that moment. I don’t know whether that gets your hamsters running upstairs, but really, Africa should be staking a bit of a claim in this kind of action. One thing I admire about India’s educational system is their Institutes of Technology. India’s Institutes of Technology boast lower acceptance rates than MIT or Harvard. That quality is not wasted. IIT’s graduates are so skilled that a lot of the world’s research and development work is done in India.

In the grand scheme of things, universities are ideal for basic research of the type where e=mc^2 comes from. Polytechnics on the other hand should be churning out technologists who can compete globally in any industry. Peter Drucker is on record that America’s competitive edge is its technologists (polytechnic graduates). I guess nowadays its real competitive advantage might be fracking. But there’s a reason why I am saying this. China’s population is so large that the number of geniuses in the country is almost equivalent to the number of students in the American tertiary education system. China’s geniuses, ‘force-multiplied’ against China’s R&D budget, which is fast approaching America’s, can only have one outcome in the long run.

For example, we have recently seen technological innovations that enable greenhouse agriculture devoid of soil. Instead of soil there are plastic granules which do not absorb water. While this technology is being hailed as a recent breakthrough, it has been in use in China for the past 10 years. Another example of this gap is that a number of young Kenyans are studying medicine in China. I happened to speak with one such graduand and she told me that she ‘discovered’ a herb that grows wild in Western Kenya which is very useful in the fight against either diabetes or prostate cancer. These examples just go to reinforce the fact that the technological differences between China and the US need to be analysed and understood for our own benefit.

Off the top of my head, here are a number of changes which we need to see in our education and technology system. Some are cost-effective while others are more cash-intensive.

  1. Some basic respect for intellectual property would help. For example software cannot be patented in Kenya. This is wrong.
  2. Universities should create partner programs with the best and the brightest. Rwanda’s Carnegie Mellon University and Dubai’s New York University come to mind.
  3. We should beef up our National Academy of Sciences both in terms of mandate and muscle.
  4. There should be tax breaks for Research and development as well as tech-heavy investment. Pharmaceutical research for Africa should be centred here in Kenya. We import a disproportionate percentage of our drugs whereas we could be keeping those currency flows in-country.