This week Makerere University students exhibited their innovations, new products or services they have developed to solve our society’s problems.
The KIIRA EV battery driven vehicle often takes center stage at such events but there were other exhibits with potentially more widespread use and far reaching implications such as the malaria testing kit, rain water harvesting technology and mobile antenatal care to name but a few. About 200 innovations were on display.
I imagine our universities have always been involved in innovations of one sort or another but I suspect not only are these innovations getting more publicity but also that there is actually more innovation going on.
This is great because universities beyond imparting knowledge should be in the business of increasing the stock of knowledge in society through research and innovation. They should be inquiring into and solving the local challenges of the day.
It is unrealistic to expect for example that the US will treat the search for a malarial vaccine or banana wilt disease or Nagana fever, with as much urgency as us who face them daily. The better able we are to resolve our own issues the better for everybody.
However our universities need to focus on their core competencies and not get carried away by their successes.
A case in point are these plans to the take the KIIRA EV and the other spin off into commercial production.
It is one thing to produce a prototype of a car and a whole different thing mass producing it on a commercially sustainable basis.
Ask the Kenyans. In 1986 former President Daniel arap Moi commissioned the University of Nairobi to develop a car, which they did. It even managed a speed of 120 kph. The project was shelved when the initial euphoria had died down and the government realised it could not afford to mass produce the car.
More recently Indian manufacturers Tata in 2008 launched the Nano car, the cheapest new car on the market at $1,700. But it has fallen far short of expectations since, selling 7000 units annually compared to anticipated 250,000.
The point is not that the KIIRA EV is bound to fail, it’s that Makerere University is not suited to make a commercial success of the venture. What is likely to happen is that government will pump hundreds of billions of shillings to mass produce, market and subsidise the loss making company for years into the future before the project is folded.
I would love to be wrong, spectacularly wrong on this one but the evidence doesn’t support a happy ending to this tale.
Makerere and other universities have a huge role to play in producing useful prototypes that can eventually be taken into commercial production by the private sector.
They will be best served if they adopt the model of Stanford University, the epicentre of the wildly successful Silicon Valley in the US. Stanford provides the facilities and personnel to do ground breaking research into high technology on its campuses, then often licenses out its patents and once in a while takes out an equity stake in companies that are built around these inventions.
And its not for lack of funds that Stanford adopts this model, the university has an endowment fund worth $18b or the size of the whole Ugandan economy, at its disposal.
This model has ensured it retains its valuable resources for furthering research and innovation, while ensuring that the companies start with a commercial orientation that ensures their long term success.
It’s the stuff of folklore how companies in Silicon Valley begin in their promoters’ garages – Hewlett Packard, Apple and Facebook to name a few. That’s how startups are built: on shoe string budgets, minimising risk and ironing the kinks before they eventually scale up and take over the world.
The huge financial out lay and desire to go into mass production immediately is a red flag that does not bode well for the project. But again I hope I am wrong.