Three universities to build laptops in innovation drive

Three of Kenya’s public universities have ventured into manufacturing laptops, perhaps highlighting the growing level of innovation in East Africa’s biggest economy.

Earlier this month, Kenyatta University became the latest entrant in the potentially lucrative enterprise, joining Moi University and the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, or JKUAT, which made similar announcements in July.

The government has signed a deal with JKUAT and Moi to deliver 600,000 tablets to grade one and two in the first phase of the project by next year. The universities will only be assembling the gadgets, as opposed to developing them from scratch.

Kenyatta University, Kenya’s largest by student numbers, said it had partnered with back-up internet generator firm BRCK to develop the gadgets, which are meant for use in the government-backed laptops-for-children project.

The two organisations will set up a computer manufacturing and assembly plant to be located at Kenyatta University’s premises on the outskirts of Nairobi.

“With this partnership, we are positioning Kenya as a hub for digital education and innovations. Both BRCK and Kenyatta University are at the forefront of developing and rolling out cutting-edge digital solutions that will transform the way education is delivered,” said Professor Olive Mugenda, vice-chancellor at Kenyatta University.

In July, JKUAT joined hands with the Ministry of Industrialisation and Enterprise Development to launch Kenya’s first laptop computer – with specifications Core i3, 4GB, 500GB – adding to a growing list of innovations by Kenya’s higher education institutions.

Moi University is in the process of assembling laptops required for the government’s free laptops programme.

Government drive

The government is hoping to use the universities to build laptops for more than 1.2 million school children under the project launched in 2013 by President Uhuru Kenyatta as part of his plan to digitise services such as health, education and the public service.

There is US$170 million set aside for procuring the laptops in the current financial year.

Initially, government had planned to import the laptops. But that plan landed in a legal minefield after some companies went to court, disapproving of the procurement process. The state then changed tack.

“For the country to compete effectively in the global market and successfully roll out all its planned economic projects, it must empower its people and institutions to innovate and apply the relevant technology for industrial growth and development,” said Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto.

“That is why we are insisting on the mantra of ‘buy Kenya, build Kenya’ to encourage innovations within the country before we can look outside for such solutions.”

To encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, the Treasury has exempted excise duty on imported computer parts, making it easier to import in bulk and assemble locally.

Innovation hub

The decisions by the three universities add impetus to Kenya’s bid to transform itself into an innovation and research hub in Africa.

The government has been pushing universities to morph into research and innovation centres, providing a platform for top-notch researchers to offer their skills in developing solutions to challenges facing Kenya and Africa.

Last year, global technology giant IBM launched a research lab in the capital Nairobi to conduct applied and exploratory research into the grand challenges of the continent by delivering commercially viable innovations that change the way things are done.

Chuka University, one of Kenya’s newest higher education institutions, has said it plans to build a US$35.3 million science and technology park to support researchers to come up with discoveries that can be used across Kenya’s economic platform.

Universities are boosting their innovation and research kitties to ride growing demand for innovation, as Kenya seeks to attain a middle-income economy by 2030 under its economic blueprint launched nearly a decade ago.

For its part, the government plans to set up a US$1 billion National Research Fund to strengthen research in universities, with an eye to boosting innovation.

Under the plan, the money available for university research will grow substantially from a current US$4 million, giving universities opportunities to get into high-end research projects.