Monday, November 28, 2011


Last week President Yoweri Museveni took a 10-minute ride in Uganda’s pioneer electric car the, Kiira EV.

The two-door lime green vehicle can scoot around at a credible speed and will cost you sh6000 at current Umeme prices, to get you from here to Jinja.

The handiwork of our very own College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology (CEDAT) has its genesis in a 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) project to develop a car that can run on both fuel and electricity.

The car has met with mixed reactions with some dismissing it as a mere car assembly project while on the other side of the spectrum others are looking beyond the car to other potential innovations that can be thrown off from the project.

Groping for what this means it was only natural that the idea of mass production was top of people’s minds.

But car assembly is a capital and labour intensive process that should not be in our immediate future plans....

Across the border in Kenya the Nyayo car was a similar project whose ominous beginnings pointed to doom. On the launch of the car in 1988 at the Kasarani Stadium failed to make it around the 400 meters athletic track much to the embarassment of the then president Daniel arap Moi. Nevertheless the Moi government ploughed on, pouring hundreds of millions of Kenya shillings into launching a company that would mass produce the car before corruption did in the project.

The cold war era is over. Propaganda is unnecessary and the idea of immediately mass producing this car should not find traction with our society.

We should look further afield maybe to Toyota. In the first half of the last century Toyota used money it got from the sale of a patent for a revolutionary automatic spinning loom to kick starts it car development arm.

Similarly in producing the Kiira EV intellectual properties might have been created. These can be patented or registered and licensed out or sold to concerns that can afford to invest resources in mass producing the car or using the licensed technology in their own processes. The money CEDAT gets thus can be used to finance future research and innovation.

Thankfully Professor Tickodri Togboa who oversaw the project is not seduced by the romance of an immediate push for mass production by Makerere University.

Togboa sees the Kiira EV as a useful tool to make people look up and take notice of Makerere’s potential.

"The immediate benefits of the project he sees, is changing the way Makerere’s students are taught – fusing theory with real time practice and says the process of registering the intellectual properties ensuing from the project are ongoing...

The project developers are looking much further down the line to developing technology solutions for our own unique circumstances. A planned Vehicle & Transport Research center should take care of this.

The paradox of innovation is where is it can happen in structured environments its best result are often a result of tottering down unbeaten paths. This kind of endevour often throws up unintended discoveries that can be utilized in seemingly unrelated fields. That is why universities are seen as ideal places of research and innovation.

So to see this development as only about a car would be to miss the point.

The car is the end product of intangible processes that can be adopted and built upon by other innovators in Makerere or further afield.

A lot of innovation is already going on at Makerere hill, what the Kiira EV will do is launch the university’s reputation as a center of innovation in the mass public. But beyond that it can ignite a spirit of innovation beyond the university.

It is in our interest to applaud innovation wherever its rears itself rather than snort at it.

In overall terms innovation is important for companies, countries and the human race at large because it allows us to extract more and more value from less and less of the finite resources we have on this earth.

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