Statement by RR Walid Badawi at the Kenya Innovation Week

December 6, 2021

Mr. Walid Badawi giving his speech at the Kenya Innovation Week. Photo by Kenya Innovation Week

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour to join my UN colleagues Lauren Landis (WFP Country Director) and Jean Lokenga (UNICEF Deputy Rep) and to be among all of you on this special occasion of this inaugural Kenya Innovation Week, where we reflect, celebrate and contemplate the role of innovation in Kenya’s economy. I am especially grateful to the organisers, KenIA, and all the supporting partners for creating this space that focuses on a topic that is so critical to the country’s growth and development and the attainment of the SDGs.

Let me begin by emphasizing that:

  • The Kenyan innovation ecosystem is on the move. Kenya is recognized as a leading hub for innovation on the continent thanks to several strengths, including a robust innovation policy framework, credible institutions, a growing number of investors, a huge population with access to technology, and a growing number of innovative startups active in the ecosystem, to name but a few of the enabling conditions.
  • Kenya has experienced tremendous growth in the last decade supported by the improvement of key development indicators such as an increasing number of innovation tech hubs across the country (standing at 48 according to a GSMA 2019 report out 618 in Africa with Kenya ranking 4th after Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt), but also increased broadband connectivity, increased funding and investments and government, development partner and private sector efforts towards decentralisation and local capacity building.
  • The potential impact of innovation in supporting social and economic development in developing countries relies on the maturity of national innovation ecosystems. Innovation ecosystems not only increase the number of startups but also lead to new jobs and economic growth by the creation of new businesses and employment categories. This is why having a state corporation such as KENIA charged with the responsibility to develop and manage the innovation ecosystem is so critical to the country.
  • In the last ten years, Kenya has seen more businesses and startups being registered. In a report by the Business Daily in September 2021, it was noted that new business registration at the Attorney General’s office crossed the 100,000 mark (a rise of 38.7%) in the year to June amidst a pandemic. There’s a huge appetite for innovative products and services further facilitated by dynamic financial infrastructures such as Lipa na Mpesa, Mpesa One tap, Pochi la Biashara and other products designed to facilitate ease of business. To support the aspirations of startups and established companies to develop innovative products and bring them to market, requires a collaborative effort. Kenya’s potential to generate cross county and cross-country solutions and markets is largely untapped. There’s an urgent need to foster linkages between sectors, counties and ecosystems and ensure that innovation growth and development is happening in sustainable and equitable ways.

Last year, in a partnership between the Ministry of ICT, Youth and Innovation, Konza Technopolis, UK Kenya Tech Hub, Countrywide Association of Innovation Hubs, Thunderbird School of Global Management, and other partners, we supported the launch of the Great COVID-19 Innovation Challenge. The challenge demonstrated the power of partnerships and provided new models for government-private and innovator ecosystem sector collaboration in the era of the fourth industrial revolution. We have also engaged and supported other challenges such as the GEN U Youth Challenge together with UNICEF, a Disability Inclusive Innovation Challenge and a Creatives Innovation Challenge. We appreciate that innovation challenges can be a mechanism to harness innovations and solutions across a wide demographic scope.

Many of the innovators supported in these challenges have gone on to scale up their operations like Swiftlab, a Kenyan cargo drone company who now has a 3-year partnership with Kenya Posta, Hygeine Rix who have since the acceleration programme gone on to have a customer base of more than 100,000 for their innovative waste management product and developed more products that are now KEBS certified. In September, we were also pleased to showcase Swiftlab to the President of Estonia, H.E.  President Kaljulaid, one of the world’s most innovative and digitally transformed societies as we have just heard from Amb. Kumal, who was truly impressed with what she had seen, in this shining example of what Kenya has to offer the world of innovation. But we did not stop there, we know that finance is needed to grow and scale these start ups and we are currently engaging various social impact investors to attract the much needed early stage investments which we know are the difference between life and death for these start ups.

Kenyan innovators are developing game changing solutions addressing pertinent challenges facing the country and the innovation challenges that we have supported have revealed just that. The use of Artificial intelligence and LED technology in crop farming and diagnostics, GPS, drone and mobile technology in health care, business support software and advanced apps for organisational and people development, use of virtual reality and robotics for education and capacity building just to mention but a few, point towards the great resource we have as a country in our local innovators.

We all have a role to play in facilitating an enabling environment for innovators to thrive. For its part, UNDP is keen to foster partnerships that build on the transformative power of digitalization, knowledge and innovation to address development challenges around the world. Globally, our recently approved Strategic Plan (2022-2025) has innovation and digital as strategic enablers development, these frameworks underpin UNDP’s determination to stay at the forefront of development thinking and innovation. At the regional level, UNDP is also working towards delivering an agile UNDP Africa Digital Strategy and Programmatic Offer that is supported by a robust multi-stakeholder digital collaborative. Nationally, as part of our SDG integrator role, UNDP is working together with the Government, the development sector, academia, civil society, private sector, communities and UN agencies, to co-create and collaborate under the Kenya SDG Accelerator Lab as key drivers for infusing innovative approaches to development challenges such as youth unemployment as the frontier challenge, we are tackling in Kenya.

The Lab was launched in September 2019 through a Communique signed by the Government of Kenya on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. It is powered by our own UNDP Accelerator Lab which is a part of the UNDP’s Global Accelerator Lab Network initiated by the UNDP Administrator, Mr. Achim Steiner and supported by Germany, Qatar and Italy. The UNDP Accelerator Lab Network is a service offering that explores new data, partnerships, solutions and testing prototypes and hypotheses to scale and grow local solutions to global and national challenges. It is an added value to the development sector in Kenya that will augment the vibrant technological innovation culture that already exists.

In collaboration with local actors including the Private Sector, Academia and Development partners the Labs seek to identify and harness homegrown solutions that have proof of concept, to bring them to scale, while creating an enabling environment for young innovators to conceptualise, test and deliver interventions that best work for their communities. The premise of these labs is to re-imagine how development work is done, promoting a culture of innovation and experimentation.

As part of the Accelerator Lab efforts, and under the leadership of the Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs, we are also working to bolster the Huduma Whitebox platform to enable innovators to gain access to training, knowledge, networks and financial resources to grow and scale up their ideas and solutions. The Huduma Whitebox also serves the function of assimilating innovation into the country's development agendas both at the national and county level.

To accelerate innovation sustainably, requires us to redouble our efforts in reaching youth across the country. We need to address gaps in education, access to information and services, particularly among low-income populations. UNDP has partnered with the Isiolo County Government, the Kenya School of Government (KSG) and The National Youth Council, to launch and support a youth learning and innovation centre in Isiolo and we are currently working with the Tana River County Government to mobilise resources for a similar Innovation Hub and city and we are codifying to these cases  for replication in other counties, in collaboration with the Council of Governors, Regional Economic Blocs, and other partners. We look forward to partnering and collaborating with more partners to ensure that opportunities from learning, development and business are available for youth across the country.

To conclude, we must continue to work together to advance young people’s skills in problem solving and innovating. We must continue to facilitate the growth of local industries and start-ups to scale. A concerted effort to support community innovations is necessary and this process must be inclusive, responsive and relevant to present realities. Just as we have in the past, UNDP looks forward to working with all of you to surface and grow new and cutting edge innovations that address the most pressing development challenges of our time, be it Climate change, GBV, corruption or even road safety. You can trust UNDP to be a reliable partner towards this goal.

I want to appreciate the great work done by all the stakeholders present here today and those not present. It is the undisputed drive and ambition present within the country to make Kenya a world-class centre for innovation excellence that has contributed to the growth and successes we have today.  

Thank you.