The UNESCO Centre for Science and Technology Innovation (CSTI) in Kenya was formed under the directorship of Professor Shem Wandiga. Partnered with Sakai community in Mbooni, the CSTI seeks solutions for drought management.
The effect of the research is telling. Three years after the foundation of the CSTI, Onesmus Munyao, 27, from Mwayu Kwanzili village says: “We can now plant and sell vegetables using water from sand dams. Three years ago we had to buy vegetables from Mukueni town.”
Professor Wandiga is a former Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi and a veteran chemistry professor at the same university. In an interview for The Global Herald , Robert Onsare asked Professor Wandiga about science, technology and innovation in Kenya.
Which era is Kenya in science?
We are in an era of sustainable science which ensures that whatever we do – we should do it with a view for the future generation.
We need to use resources in such a way that we do not take away everything from the source.
How are you going to overcome exhausting natural sources?
There are three challenges to overcome in this regard. First, let’s consider the source of energy. At the moment we depend on fossil fuel. We are yet to discover new fossil fuels. This means we are soon going to run out of fossil fuels on earth. What will the future generation use?
This is why we have brought in renewable energy sources such as biofuel, solar energy, geothermal, hydro energy among others.
Secondly, harnessing renewable feed stock which means that when we are making products the source of the material being used should be reused without depleting it.
Thirdly, the challenge of hazardous chemicals to the environment. Most of the chemicals we use are derived from oil so we synthesise some of these chemical through the breakdown of oil.
Most of the chemical industry depend on oil feed stocks which are used to make new chemicals. Some of the new chemicals we have synthesized are not found in nature. Some of them have a bad effect on human health and the environment. But, we have kept on dumping chemicals into the environment thus working towards our own destruction.
We have a challenge of finding synthesis that will not put hazardous chemicals into the environment.
We need to ensure that whatever we do should not add hazardous chemicals to the environment. We need to remove the toxic ones we have put into the environment – this is the basis of green chemistry.
For example, we put a lot of carbon dioxide to the environment. We are looking at synthesised chemicals that will not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Solar vehicles, solar heaters, solar lights among others new developments, will not add new carbon dioxide to the environment.
How will Kenyans begin to benefit from green chemistry?
The government should a tax exemption to environment friendly devices to make them affordable to Kenyans. But its encouraging that solar heaters and solar lighting prices are coming down and are popular amongst Kenyans.
We are exploring a new technology in exploiting geothermal power, whereby one shaft is drilled to tap into several points.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is willing to assist Kenya if we so desire. The ball is in the court of the Ministry of Energy and the Government to decide.
We need to encourage the manufacture of solar cells here in Kenya to be able to utilize the abundant resource of the Sun. we are privileged to to have iron and titanium ore, notwithstanding that we do not have copper we can import it from our neighbouring countries like Tanzania and Zambia to manufacture solar cells.
Sand (silicon dioxide) which is the major component in the manufacture of solar cells is in abundance in Kenya.
Why are you propagating green chemistry?
We are looking at means to realize chemical reactions which have no waste products. 100 percent yield.
What steps are you taking to incorporate green chemistry into the Kenyan educational curriculum?
We have introduced green chemistry into our university curriculum. The University of Nairobi, chemistry department is offering green chemistry units from undergraduate to graduate level although it will take some time to catch up with the rest of the world.
Green chemistry will enable our students to start appreciating that the era of mass wastage is gone. Embracing green chemistry is a means of encouraging everyone to try to do more with less.
Yes, its study will stir a mindset where we will start appreciating that things unseen have a great impact. This is what leads environmental pollution to take place.
Are you advocating the study of nanotechnology?
Yes. However, nanotechnology is yet to be embraced here in Kenya. Nanotechnology requires heavy investment by the government.
The amount of money spent in science and technology in the country is very small. We are yet to invest in science and technology to realize its benefits.
So what is the way forward?
Since nanotechnology is very important we need to send students abroad to acquire this science – to utilize here at home.
What is your take on African and Kenyan innovation?
Africans have been innovating all along. Our people know the best crops and spices to be grown in which area, what season and how.
Even the big batch banana has been prepared through the tissue culture experiment which gets the best genes from various bananas to produce the best crops.
Take the example of the People of Bogoria where I was few days ago. They have innovated bee keeping thus using honey as a source of income, living by producing bigger quantities than before.
Here in Africa we had a big innovation in the 1970s – the transfer of the Nile Patch from the River Nile to Lake Victoria – where the patch found enough food to increase its body weight from 1 kilo gramme (Kg) to 50-80 Kg. This process was an innovation, a breakthrough in fish breeding.
We have innovations taking place everywhere. Our young people are very innovative in the ICT front. They have been able to write programs which are very applicable, example, e-banking and e-security among others.
Then where does the problem lie?
The problem is that we are not patenting some of the innovations to make them to generate income. The innovations we have had so far should become the nucleus of future companies.
How are you going to jump this hurdle?
As I have said Africans and Kenyans in particular are very innovative. However, the society is slow to accept that innovation needs nurturing.
We are slow to put in place necessary infrastructure that will enhance the development of good, new ideas for the next industries.
One, we urgently need to put up science parks and industrial parks where ideas can be tested, improved and moulded into commercial products.
Two, strengthen the the intellectual property rights office.
Third, put aside risk money to offer to people with innovative ideas to develop and perfect their concepts into end products.