Optimism sweeps through Kenya’s science community

Copyright: James Njoroge

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The general election victory last December of Kenya’s National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) was widely greeted in the country. After the corruption and mismanagement of the previous 39 years’ rule of the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), Narc’s success prompted immediate relief among the country’s 30 million inhabitants.

Some of the pre-election optimism appeared justified in January, when the new government of president Mwai Kibaki implemented its first election pledge – to provide all children with free primary education. Kibaki characterised this as the first stepping-stone in transforming Kenya from a country where 53 per cent of the population live below the poverty line to a knowledge-based society.

This same commitment is reflected in the new government’s first budget, revealed last month. Next year’s spending by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is to jump from US$840 million to US$985 million.

So far, science is yet to receive the same priority treatment as primary education, which will receive US$115 million of the ministry’s budget. And although the government almost doubled the budgetary allocation to the National Council of Science and Technology (NCST) – from US$657,000 to US$1.09 million – most scientists argue that this is still far below what is needed.

But hopes are high in the scientific community that they will soon benefit directly from the new government’s promises to improve the state of science and technology in Kenya.

George Saitoti

“After completing the primary education programme, our next mission will be to develop the country’s science and technology infrastructure,” says education, science and technology minister George Saitoti, formerly a mathematics professor at the University of Nairobi.

There is certainly room for improvement. Past governments have invested little in science and technology. When they did, the results were not encouraging. In the late 1980s, for example, former president Daniel Arap Moi launched a project to produce the so-called ‘Nyayo Car’, run by the University of Nairobi’s department of engineering. But corruption and mismanagement forced the project to a halt.

As elsewhere in East Africa, spending on research and development remains low, currently representing only 0.01 per cent of the gross national product. The lack of morale among the nation’s scientists is seen as largely down to this factor.

But there is optimism that all this will change with the new administration. “There are encouraging signs that the new government is willing and ready to talk to scientists,” says environmental scientist Shem Wandiga, former president of the Kenya National Academy of Science (KNAS).

“For example, scientists can now easily access cabinet ministers, who appear ready to listen to our problems,” says Wandiga. He notes that environment minister Newton Khulundu has been seeking information on local scientists’ research projects, particularly which problems they are focusing on, and how they plan to tackle them.

Khulundu wants to see how the new government can help to implement some of the scientific findings from these projects, Wandiga says. “It is clear that this government appreciates the role of science and technology in alleviating the poverty that this country faces.”

James Ochanda

James Ochanda, professor of biochemistry at the University of Nairobi and chairman of the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), an independent organisation that promotes awareness on biotechnology issues, agrees that local scientists now face a widow of opportunity.

But he points out that the Kenyan government has much to do if it is genuinely committed to building its scientific capacity. “To begin with, it must pay its researchers well if it wants them to be creative,” he says, pointing out that the salary of government scientists currently stands at only US$680 a month.

Jacob Midiwo, a natural substance chemist at the University of Nairobi, is equally adamant that the government’s top priority must be to increase the pay of university academics. “This government must live up to its promise of improving the welfare of Kenyans – and that includes scientists,” he says. “That is the only way science will contribute to the well-being of the nation.”

It would also help persuade them not to join the brain drain, says Midiwo. “Bad working conditions for scientists have forced them to seek greener pastures in developed countries,” he warns. “The brain drain will continue to bite if the government does not address problems facing us.” 

Another priority, says Midiwo, is ensuring the money goes where it should. When scientists receive government money for research, steps must be taken to ensure that it is actually spent on the projects for which it has been intended, rather than being used for private purposes to make up for their low salaries. “Too often, money intended for research is used to build houses or to buy cars,” he says.

One suggestion that has considerable support in the scientific community is for the government to create a new funding body to distribute research funds raised both locally and internationally.

“A national research fund should be established with full backing from the government,” says Ochanda. He points out that the NCST is essentially an advisory body, and is therefore not well placed to raise extra funds for local scientists and scientific organisations.

He also suggests that “if the government is serious about science and technology it should set up an office of director of research”, just as it already has a director of education. “Such a person would be well placed to understand our problems,” says Ochanda.

But money is just as important. Otieno Mallo, professor of physics at the University of Nairobi and current president of the KNAS, says the additional money NCST has received from the government, although welcome, is just a drop in the ocean when compared to the needs of the country’s scientists.

He estimates that the academy, for example, needs US$342,000 a year to run its programmes properly, but has only been allocated US$60,000. The KNAS, he says, cannot even afford to pay for enough staff. So although in principle it has committees set up in a range of scientific disciplines, there is no one to run them.

 “We have people that we want to fund, and we also need to revive the popularisation of science and technology,” complains Mallo. “We used to hold an annual science congress, in which very good people from schools presented their projects, but we cannot afford to do any of that at present.”

Not everyone sees extra government funding for research as the solution, however. John Wafula, an MSc student in biochemistry at the University of Nairobi, agrees that universities need extra resources to do their work, but believes other sources should be tapped for this.

“University authorities must themselves be innovative enough to raise their own funds,” he says.

Judi Wakhungu

Judi Wakhungu, executive director of the African Centre for Technology Studies, concurs with this view. While applauding the decision by the government to give NCST more money, which she describes as a sign of good things to come, she warns that the task of funding science should not be left to the government alone.

“The private sector is crucial,” she says, pointing out that its contribution will be vital in securing a significant growth in national spending on R&D. “African governments agreed in the 1980s to allocate 1 per cent of their GDP to science enterprises, but little has come out of it.” 

One way that governments could help, says Wafula, would be by waiving sales taxes and import duty on equipment used in research. “That would be a great assistance to individuals keen to set up their own laboratories,” he says.

Getting politicians and other policy-makers to agree to such moves, however, will require changing the way they think about science. “We need to sensitise people, including top decision-makers, if we are to make sure that science and technology are properly funded,” says Mallo. “If we do not do that, we are going to face a lot of problems.”

Mallo is particularly keen for members of Parliament to be made aware of the role of science and technology in the country’s development, as a means of persuading them to put money into science. This could be partly achieved, he suggests, by ensuring that there are people with a knowledge of science working in parliament as advisers.

“That would bring in the missing link between scientists and politicians,” says Mallo. “The problem at the moment is that no one cares.”

Mallo and others accept that dramatic change is not likely to happen overnight. But they welcome the fact that senior members of the new government appear keen to take their complaints seriously – something that has not happened in Kenya for decades.

Moody Awori

Home affairs minister Moody Awori, for example, is one of those who have repeated the government’s commitment to promote science and technology in the country. The Narc government “has total confidence in our young scientists”, he wrote recently.

It remains to be seen how far the Kibaki government’s goodwill towards science and technology will last. Idle Omar Farah, an animal pathologist recently appointed director general of the National Museums of Kenya, points out that public expectations of the government are high. “The mood in the country is that results must be delivered now. That can be frustrating at times, given the many hurdles we have to overcome if we are to deliver.”

But he adds: “The most satisfying thing is that we have the backing from the very top, something that was not very forthcoming in the past.” That support, he says, “should help yield results sooner rather than later”.

Photo credit: James Njoroge