Universities open doors to business opportunities

In what seems to be a growing trend in Kenya, public universities are actively seeking investments in a range of sectors including manufacturing, real estate and agriculture. The latest is Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, or JKUAT, which has announced plans to open an instant noodle-making factory in partnership with a Japanese firm.

The institution follows in the footsteps of Moi and Kenyatta universities which have invested in a clothing factory and a 'Unicity', a real estate development, to supplement income from government funding and fees paid by students.

The latest investment by JKUAT will see a US$3.5 million food factory put up at the university, mainly focused on manufacturing instant noodles, according to a university statement, and churning out 150 packets of noodles per minute.

This is the first factory of its kind in Kenya. It represents a joint venture with Nissin Food Holdings Company Limited of Japan. The partnership between the University and Nissin started in 2007 when the Japanese company started producing food on a small scale in partnership with JKUAT to provide lunch to nearby primary school kids from poor families.

The partnership later established JKUAT Nissin Foods Ltd which was registered in 2013, with part of the agreement being to initiate technology transfer, boost research facilities as well as provide employment opportunities, according to former vice-chancellor Mabel Imbuga.

JKUAT is also one of the institutions in partnership with international technology companies that has won a multimillion dollar tender from the government to provide hundreds of thousands of computer tablets to primary school children as part of the country’s digital learning programmes.

The institution’s faculty of engineering has been developing software for the programme, saving the country millions of dollars that would otherwise have been earned by foreign companies.

Advancing research and growing knowledge

According to Patrick Mbataru, a lecturer in agri-business at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, there is nothing wrong with institutions investing in industry so long as the investments helped to advance research and contributed to the generation of knowledge.

“It is alright for universities to engage in income-generating ventures, but besides the income, the bigger picture is that they ought to do so with the first objective being to advance research and help grow knowledge,” he told University World News in a telephone interview.

However, he cautioned that universities were not profit-making bodies.

The trend should be encouraged to give students opportunities to put what they learned in lecture rooms into practice, as well as help institutions supplement their incomes, he said.

“When the main drivers of any venture remain the core functions of any university – knowledge generation and advancement of research – then the trend should be encouraged,” he added.

The JKUAT venture has several precedents in the higher education sector.

A few years ago, Moi University acquired the collapsed Rift Valley Textile Mills East Africa from the government, reviving it to become a thriving enterprise which is now producing products such as flannels, flags, bags, bedding and designer clothes.

It has well-established links with the Chinese textile industry for purposes of knowledge exchange and technology transfer.

Losing sight of the core business?

But the ventures have not escaped censure by critics who argue that the core business of universities – teaching and research – was being lost in the rush to invest.

Coming in for the harshest criticism has been Kenyatta University whose 'University City' (Unicity) concept was developed under the tenure of immediate former vice-chancellor Olive Mugenda. It comprises a multimillion dollar shopping mall, a hyper-market, retail shops, banks, ATM points and a fuel station, among other facilities.

Critics have pointed out that the investment, being a real estate development on the busy highway connecting Nairobi to central Kenya, adds no value to the educational institution, other than generating revenue.

The institution also runs one of the busiest morgues in the city and is putting up an ultra-modern teaching hospital.

Controversy over laptops

Controversy is still ongoing at the JKUAT in the form of resistance from parents after it was announced that all new students were to buy laptop computers made by the institution as a mandatory requirement before admission.

The university’s laptop, branded 'Taifa', has been on sale throughout the country.

The institution, which also hosts the Pan African University Institute of Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation, is not stopping there. This month, it partnered with local firm Tropikal Brands Africa, a company owned by former Nation Media Group CEO Linus Gitahi, to commission a dairy plant that will produce a 'child-friendly' yoghurt for local markets.

Farming enterprises

In other cases of entrepreneurial activities, both the University of Nairobi and Egerton University in the Rift Valley region have been running successful agricultural enterprises on their expansive parcels of land, producing high-value horticulture crops and rearing livestock.

The University of Nairobi, for example, owns more than 1,000 acres on the outskirts of the city, on which sits its College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences. Here, the university breeds top grade cattle and poultry, and grows fruits and vegetables. Hundreds of workers are employed on the farm which also provides students with opportunities for practical lessons.

Similarly, Egerton University has for decades run successful ventures in wheat and dairy production, horticulture, agro-processing and agro-forestry on its more than 20,000 acre farm where some of the most modern agriculture technologies are tested.