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Prof Olive Mugenda, Vice Chancellor, Kenyatta University on Treading the Innovation Path

Universities are the best breeding grounds for innovative ideas, and big names such as Facebook, Yahoo and Google are the best examples.

The late Steve Jobs, one of the most brilliant geniuses in tech history once said, “Innovation has nothing to do with how many research and development dollars you have ……. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

In Kenya, universities have changed focus from producing job seekers to making job creators, people with big ideas that can help the world develop rapidly.

Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania hosts the Universities and Research in Agribusiness Innovation Fair that draws exhibitors from institutions of higher learning. Strathmore University has the innovation week, a forum for aspiring technology entrepreneurs, while Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology Centre for Business Innovation aims at sustained economic development and job creation.

Kenyatta University gives an incentive to encourage innovation at two levels. “We give KSh10,000 to students and KSh20,000 to staff members,” says Prof Olive Mugenda, Vice Chancellor, Kenyatta University.

This, she says, has increased the number of ideas that stream in, saving the management the agony of having to sit down and think about everything.

She gives an example of one staff member’s idea that has seen the university streamline the way Continuous Assessment Tests (CAT) are administered.

During Continuous Assessment Tests (CAT), students would go to the examination rooms with papers of all colours. A bunch of the papers would look like a combination of so many exams.

“This staff member said; ‘why don’t we spend some little money and brand these CAT papers just like we do with the main exam.’ The idea has worked so well,” she says.

Innovation centre

For students, the university has an innovation and incubation Centre, thanks to Dr Manu Chandaria who donated some resources.

“The structure will be complete in a few months. We have already launched the Centre and the building will give us more space,” she says.

Through the Centre, students’ innovative ideas are incubated through provision of internet connections and a workshop, and eventually rolled out into the market.

“We started with 25 students, but when the Centre is complete, we expect to get to 100, including up to 30 per cent from outside.”

According to James Duderstadt in his paper The Future of Higher Education in the Knowledge-Driven, Global Economy of the 21 st Century, a radically new system for creating wealth has evolved that depends upon the creation and application of new knowledge.

“In a very real sense, we are entering a new age, an age of knowledge in which the key strategic resource necessary for prosperity has become knowledge itself — educated people and their ideas,” he says.

Duderstadt says unlike natural resources, such as iron and oil that have driven earlier economic transformations, knowledge is inexhaustible. The more it is used, the more it multiplies and expands.

He emphasizes the need for society to view the university as an engine for economic growth through the generation and application of new knowledge.

“There has been a shift in emphasis within the university away from simply distributing and analysing knowledge, that is, teaching and scholarship, to creating and applying knowledge, to activities such as innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.”

Infrastructure projects

In line with nurturing creativity and a bid to meet international standards, Kenyatta University has unveiled infrastructure projects such as a library, referral hospital and a students’ Centre.

“From my experience in the US, I thought we needed a referral hospital owned by a public university in Kenya,” she says.

In the US, she says, the best hospitals are owned by universities. Out of the top 10, seven are university hospitals.

The new hospital project could take two years to complete and fully equip. “Hopefully before I leave office,” she says.

She reveals that borrowing money to develop the University infrastructure is one of the most important decisions she has made as a leader at Kenyatta University.

“If you wait until you have the money, you will never have enough. So this is a good way of managing money. The money will still come later after using the premise.”

Initially built by the British Government as a military base, infrastructure at Kenyatta University was unsuitable for hosting a university and required a complete make-over.

The infrastructure challenge at the University has been long lived. During Prof Olive’s interview for the position of VC, she told the panel that in addition to improving academic programmes and ensuring high students’ enrolment, she would work on infrastructure.

“The university’s infrastructure has been developed. For example we have the library, which is one of my big projects. I wanted to see this university with a good library and I kept thinking that may be our students go to countries like US and UK and feel like they are coming from an inferior to a world class university. I want them to feel like they are coming from a world class university.”

Type of leader

Prof Mugenda describes herself as a leader who is hands on and focuses on targets. “I am available. I try to talk to as many people as I can and put extra time even at home to do my work.”

“To people who are slow and not target oriented, I become a bit impatient. May be they feel it, but in a positive way.”

Having worked with her for a long time, she says most employees know her expectations in terms of meeting targets, looking at details and going that extra mile. Prof Mugenda has been an employee of Kenyatta University for her entire working life, having begun as a graduate assistant after graduation from the same University.

Despite all that exposure to University life, she still gets sleepless nights, but only if students lack basics such as electricity and water.

“In a campus that hosts 10,000 students, lack of water or power gives me sleepless nights.”

She terms other tough management decisions as difficult but support systems such as senate, council and the management play a huge role in ensuring success.

“Those are issues that we discuss and resolve. Lack of basic needs worries me more.”

The university has 43,000 students, including open learning students, 1,000 teaching members of staff, and 2,000 non-teaching members of staff.

Management Magazine September 2012



  • Stanley Sagero

    I never regret why i spent my four years in K.U

  • Apostle koko

    I admire Prof. Mugenda. Nairobi university’s infrastructure is wanting despite having the greatest number of self sponsored students. All that is done is sharing that income among themselves instead of developing the university. Yet they are among the first lot to ask for salary increments. Its the High time the government does something about it. That money should be collected and given to the government then shared in the budget like any other income or better still fully accounted for in terms of developments and not allowances. We need a focused leadership in Nairobi also.

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