Five major universities in the country are still trailing behind when it comes to supporting innovation in Kenya. The universities including Egerton, JKUAT, Maseno, MMUST, Maasai Mara, Laikipia University and Moi university are missing in a list comprising of top varsities that has placed Kenya on the global innovation map.
Egerton and JKUAT are though in the list of campuses churning out award winning tech start-ups, including top innovations in Media and Entertainment and Climate and Environment. The Njoro based varsity has also had its name inscribed in innovations associated with improvement of health in the country. Students from both JKUAT and Egerton had their innovations Guide rig and Magazine Reel listed as the best during the 2013 and 2014 Safaricom Appwiz Challenge.
At the top of the innovation channel is Madaraka based Strathmore university. The University’s iBiz Africa lab is credited with nurturing Dynamic Data System, an intelligent mobile application that allows users to track their transactions by providing financial journals on their devices.
At the end of its development at the incubation hub, the start-up was acquired for an undisclosed amount by Safaricom in 2014 changing its name to Safaricom M-ledger.
iBiz Africa has a capacity of more than 100 people and is currently incubating 25 start-ups including Magazine Reel.
Kenyatta University’s Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Centre (CBIIC) on the other hand is credited with hosting AfricarTrack International, a company using mobile phones to address transport problems, including car related crime.
The start-up recently secured funding from Growth Africa, an organisation that accelerates innovative start-ups to investment ready businesses.
“Investors will always want start-ups that are fast-growing and incubation centres place these businesses at an advantageous position,” said CBIIC director George Kosimbei.
The CBIIC, which has capacity of 120 companies, is currently incubating 66 start-ups. The hub allocates 30 per cent of its available space to the non-KU community.
Catholic University hosts the IBM Africa Lab, a tech hub keen on developing and deploying innovative IT applications to tackle challenges hampering economic growth in the continent such as traffic congestion, food insecurity and inefficiencies in public procurement.
Mount Kenya University (MKU) runs an enterprise academy dubbed Research Enterprise Development Centre (REIDC) that has three incubation programmes pegged on ICT, hospitality and microfinance.
The MKU Enterprise Academy in 2014 ran a pitching contest where nine budding entrepreneurs each received Sh800,000 seed grant.
KCA University established the Centre for Entrepreneurship in September 2009 to serve as a central resource for young entrepreneurs seeking to scale up their innovations.
Louis Openda, founder tech start up IntellisoftPlus, is among the beneficiaries of the KCA incubation centre, and says the centre helped nurture his “entrepreneurial skills.”
Africa Nazarene University (ANU) has a partnership with Techno Brain to equip young professionals and the youth in Kenya with ICT and leadership skills.
As a result, the Centre of Excellence has been set up at ANU offer mentoring and internship opportunities supported by the latest industry practices.
Only last year November, the University of Nairobi (UoN) partnered with Chinese ICT giant Huawei to unveil the Huawei Authorised Network Academy (HAINA) labs, which has adopted the university-enterprise cooperation model.
The non-profit programme is designed to provide practical skills required for students undertaking Computer Science and related studies.
UoN vice chancellor Peter Mbithi expressed confidence that the HAINA solution will help bridge the skill gap between academic training and industrial needs.
The university already hosts the C4D lab, an innovation start-up lab at its School of Computing and Informatics.
Founded in 2013, C4D lab has among its flagship activities start-up acceleration, capacity building, prototyping and research.
Nine tech start-ups recently graduated from the lab after expiry of their incubation period, paving the way for announcement of another round of admissions.
Dr Kosimbei says, ideally, the incubation period depends on the kind of solution an enterprise seeks to solve. Usually, an idea pitch at the incubation hubs is geared towards addressing a problem within the community.
It is the reason why innovative ones are picked actualised.
He says while a start-up in finance can do six months, a startup offering health solutions or one undertaking business development services can do up to three years.
Benard Chiira, the incubation manager at iBiz Africa said hubs have a window period for start-ups of between three months to one year.
He, however, reckoned it takes longer than the stipulated incubation period for the start-ups to gain footing.
“From experience, it takes up to four years for a company to operate on its own. It is not uncommon for the start-ups to extend their tenure at the incubation hubs for one to two years,” he said.
Some of the merits of registering under an incubation hub is that the start-ups get subsidised overhead costs.
They are also placed at a strategic location where potential investors can reach out to them and inject some capital into their business.
Mr Chiira said the challenge with hosting the start-ups at the hub is that some of them get too comfortable and lazy, which does not give value for money to the institution.
“Further, the entrepreneurs are not always willing to give a share of their business to venture capitalists,” he said.
Incubation hubs depend on grants and donor support which usually has a life span and whose subsequent rounds are not guaranteed.
There has been mounting concern from the in hubs at the institutions of higher learning as the start-ups embark on hopping from one hub to another.
This was one of the concerns raised during the Sankalp Africa Summit 2016 that took place on Kenyan soil.
The summit was organised by Intellecap, a global investment and advisory firm that brings together diverse stakeholder groups including the World bank, USAid, The Lamelson Foundation and the Shell Foundation among others.
As to whether Egerton university and others who keep on producing smart innovators will build an incubation centre is a matter still in discussion.