Kenyan Engineering by Kevin Odongo

This is the post excerpt.


Being an engineering student, I have started this blog to give my perspective on engineering news, events etc.


Is The Kenyan University Achievement A Curse?



By Kevin Odongo

Several months ago, writing on this Forum for “Tuesday Tips”, I opined that universities should not act like ivory towers by alienating themselves from the society that they are part. This followed the news of the collapsed residential building in Huruma, Nairobi and the floods that characterized the Nairobi roads at that time. We should note that save for expert contributions made by Eng. Goro of department of Civil and Construction engineering at the University of Nairobi on national television, there was little to no contribution from other staff or students of any Kenyan university in addressing the issues that bedevilled    our city at that particular time.  I also wrote that the universities and the country at large should find ways to make use of the millions of young people idling in the campuses, spending a lot of their times high on illegal substances and/or playing video games or betting.

To add on what I wrote then, I’ll share my observation regarding the life cycle of a Kenyan smart enough to make it to university on government scholarship/sponsorship. I’ll draw from my own life story and compare it with what I see about my friends who never made it to college/ didn’t go for any studies after high school.

Born into a struggling family, my parents have always seen education as the only way out of the poverty. It really helps that Evans and I were intellectually blessed and were able to secure government sponsorships to get to the university. Evans just finished his bachelor studies and is awaiting graduation. He has acquired skills, knowledge and information that will be useful to the country when he is given the power to read and do all that appertains to his degree. In addition to the wonderful experiences of university campus life, he has a big burden of an education loan that he has to pay.

Apologies for digressing, what I really meant was to speak about my own life. I am starting my final (fifth) year of electrical engineering in a few days. It has been one wonderful journey through university. I have tried my hands on several things while in the university. A lot of them have been highly successful and resulted in great memories. A lot have been fun. I have grabbed as many opportunities as my limbs have been able to hold. A few have flopped. My only regrets are opportunities that I let slip by me. I still endeavor to impress my parents by doing well in my university exams. I am glad that I have been able to do that this far. I have developed the self-confidence of Paul Kongani Udoto, believing I can achieve whatever I have set my mind to. In short, as a student, I have done my best. Has it been one smooth journey since first year? Hell No. I remember the several times that I have had to study while on an empty stomach. I have literally been living from hand to mouth on campus. Financial stability has been one thing I have been chasing since first year. I look into graduating in a year’s time. Am I better off financially now than I was 6 years ago before I joined campus? Hell No. In fact now I owe the government over a third of a million Kenya Shillings.

Caleb is a friend I was with in high school. Unlike me, Caleb did not go to university after high school. Instead, he borrowed a million Kenyan shillings from his dad who is a national politician and started a company. Three years of doing business and he had returned all the money he borrowed. He lives in his own apartment, is married with two children. He enrolled for a bachelor’s degree and has been attending evening classes. He might be graduating at the end of this year.

Now they say comparison is the robber of joy but there are times when you have to compare yourself with your peers, otherwise you wouldn’t know if your growth is stunted. Just over a week ago the world’s sixth wealthiest person and founder of Facebook, Marc Zuckerberg was in the country. It is perhaps important to note that he dropped out of college to pursue what he had realized was his life mission. Does the Kenyan environment allow this kind of move?  It is almost impossible for persons from poor back grounds to follow their hearts in Kenya. Because the education we receive makes the difference between our survival and condemnation to the cycle of poverty that has bedeviled our generations. This question of higher education funding has found its way into American presidential campaigns. We, similarly as Kenyans must ask the hard questions and see ways of having grants instead of loans for our university students.  Young people in universities should also be involved in part time jobs. This will reduce the financial burden that fresh graduates face besides creating more jobs. Hence better social security for the country. We might just realize the 24-hr economy if we involve our university students.


WASTE MANAGEMENT: Why Nairobi Needs More EcoPosts

By Kevin Odongo

I first heard of Lorna Rutto’s EcoPost social enterprise in a feature on CNN. The story on how she started the company and the impact the company has had so far, was inspiring enough to make me want to pen an article about it.

So, a few weeks ago when I came across a meme on social media asking, “What is the point of your education, if you still throw garbage on streets to be ultimately picked by an uneducated person?” and seeing the rivers of sewage flowing, clogged drainages as I walked down the streets of Nairobi’s Eastlands, I was moved to finally put pen to paper.

Nairobi has had its population continue to swell as more young people come into the city to look for jobs. The high population has resulted in demand for housing and more pressure on the available (thought limited) resources. Most importantly to this, the rapid increase in population has resulted in the emergence of informal settlements. These informal settlements and other low income areas of Nairobi often have poor or non-existent sanitation and/or waste management. This has resulted in unhealthy neighborhoods with rampant outbreaks and spread of cholera, typhoid and other diseases related to poor. Yet with all these, the residents of these places seem to have resigned their fate to live in such conditions for the rest of their lives and the lives of generations to come.

They do not speak out against the inhuman way in which they have been forced to live. It seems the only voice they are left with, is meant to negotiate with their landlords not to kick them out of their shelters. They have resigned to this way of life.

Similarly, there seems to be a general resignation of the majority of Nairobians to the fact that their environments will always have some litter. So we stopped caring when we were forced to pick litter while in Primary School. We have been reduced to admire well-kept neighborhoods in pictures, without ever hoping to turn our neighborhoods to look similar to the high end settlements we admire. Even the authorities seems to have given up on this, otherwise how would you explain non-existence of litter bins in most of the streets? You can be assured that we will always grab quick lunches in plastic bags because we cannot afford the time or the money to visit proper restaurants for proper meals. So where do you expect us to put the plastic bags if there are no litter bins? There have been arguments that such bins would be stolen if installed in low income areas. That’s complete hogwash! No one stops fueling their cars just because the cars drank up the last gas you put in. Truth is, we just haven’t thought it as very important to have a well-structured waste collection within our residential areas.

While institutions like National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) are putting in efforts to ensure implementation of policies that protect our environment, more still needs to be done especially by involving each and every household. Lots of opportunities still lie in the re-use and recycling of waste just like EcoPost is using 100% of recycled plastics to make environmental friendly lumber. For our engineers and those looking into entrepreneurship, waste to energy (WtE) incineration, pyrolysis to create industrial liquid fuel are some of the opportunities that can help keep our streets clean while also turning trash into cash and remain under-pursued in Kenya. Considering the tons of wastes produced in the city every day, there are millions of opportunities to create more EcoPost(s).


Kevin Odongo

About a month ago, I visited Konza city’s new power substation being set up by KETRACO. Funded by the Exim Bank of India, the building of the substation is undertaken by Shyama Power Ltd of India. The sub-station is estimated to cost over Ksh. 1 billion. When complete, the substation will have the capacity to supply 50MW of power to Konza City. Further information indicated that over 70% of the material used were sourced from India.

India has had much longer experience in the development of electricity grid and over many years, has built the necessary capacity to undertake such projects. Suffice to say, the participation of Kenyan engineers in the design and implementation of such projects ensures not only knowledge transfer but we build capacity to be able to undertake similar projects on our own in future and at competitive rates. Our very first technical training institution of higher learning, University of Nairobi, has been in existence for close to five decades now and I can only hope that the aim of the training of the thousands of engineers who have graduated from it and other newer institutions was to build that capacity to be able to meet the huge infrastructural needs of the country.

Industrialisation was one major factor that led to the growth of the Western European economies and continues to remain a major factor for developing countries today. 2015 estimates show that manufacturing contributed more to the Nigerian economy than Oil. For a long time, Kenya’s economy has relied heavily on agriculture. Estimated to employ about 70% of the population and contributing over 25% to Kenya’s GDP, Agriculture remains very important to Kenya. However, emerging dynamics in globalisation and international trade have continuously threatened the heavy reliance on Agriculture. In fact, recently we have seen Kenyans hoping Tanzania and Uganda will support and sign the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the European Union and The East African Community. This would ease the amount of tax that Kenya’s produce attracts in the market. However, Tanzania and Uganda are very cautious after Brexit – UK’s recent referendum on leaving the EU. President Museveni even asked the European Union not to be excited because, as he put it,“We shall not be signing this agreement until we have discussed it”

This calls us to shift our focus from being a lead producer of raw materials to set up value adding plants to ensure we locally produce competitive finished products in Kenya in line with Kenya’s vision to be an industrialised country by 2030. We have been building capacity for over five decades, now is the time to encourage the manpower we have trained, to set up shops that employ the technical skills they have acquired. It is laudable that we have a bicycle manufacturing plant being set up in Nakuru. We still import a lot of our farm and construction equipment. The Government, in partnership with Academia, Financial institutions and the private sector must, therefore, provide incentives so the trained engineers can venture out to create more manufacturing plants for some of these machines and equipment that we heavily import. Manufacturing will create more jobs hence improve the economy.


Thin sim Technology at the Centre of Safaricom-Finserve wars


By Kevin Odongo

Equity Bank, through its wholly owned mobile virtual network operator(MVNO) subsidiary,  Finserve Africa, is planning to roll out thin sim overlay  technology which would compete with safaricom’ s money transfer and telecommunication services. These plans however, did not go well with Safaricom who wrote to Communications Authority of Kenya saying the thin SIM would pose great risks to the privacy of mobile subscribers and interfere with normal operations of the primary SIM cards onto which they will be planted. Safaricom had also asked the communications regulatory body to ban Finserve from using the thin SIM technology. Finserve refuted the claims by writing to the regulator saying Safaricom’s allegations were ‘’little more than attempts to quash competition’’.

A thin SIM is an ultra-slim layer of plastic with a circuit printed on it. A user can stick it on to an existing SIM Card to continue accessing the original network, but with the added functionality of the secondary provider. It ideally converts single SIM device into a dual-SIM device. Touch points built into the overlay filters information between the two. The hardware enables a means to store and carry programs logic independent of the primary SIM, hence enabling other providers to provide services through the overlay SIM network without interfering with the operations of the primary SIM.

Once the thin SIM is stuck onto a primary SIM card, users can access services on both the thin SIM network and the network of the original SIM card onto which it is laid. The company providing the thin sim technology is Taisys Technology Ltd Company of Taiwan which also holds the patent for the technology.

SIM overlay technology was initially developed by Chinese Mobile Network Operators as a mobile phone solution to support multi operator access, designed to avoid roaming fees- a concept that Roamly, a Canadian company has successfully applied globally to solve roaming problems that arose when a user travelled across countries. A situation that always forced them to buy local sim cards of the countries they were visiting or incur higher charges in transferring to the mobile operator network of the country they are visiting. This technology has made it unnecessary to carry two phones while on a foreign trip.

Use of the thin SIM technology for financial solutions was pioneered by the Shanghai based tech company F-Road.  The successful application of the technology in China with an estimated population of about 1.5 billion people is a clear indication that the technology can be used to make banking and other financial services available to a large number of people with maximum returns.

Kenya has an estimated mobile subscriber base of about 30.5 million people accounting for about 93% of the total population. Another 73% are estimated to be users of mobile money. Furthermore, 23% are said to use mobile money at least once a day. The number of mobile subscribers continue rising and so is the number of mobile money users as people seek more available banking services without having to visit the banks.  Cash payments are rapidly being replaced by mobile-phone payments in virtually all sectors of the economy.

Now I think the introduction of the thin SIM technology by Finserve is promising very interesting times ahead for the telecommunication and banking industries. It has the potential of doing better than Safaricom’s MPESA if well implemented. It promises better services at better costs. These wars are going to be beneficial to the customers in the end. Safaricom will have to improve or see its customers prefer Finserve’s product.

Meanwhile, it seems Safaricom is also not left behind in trying to bridge gap between banking services and clients:

Biashar@Smart: Safaricom-KCB deal to target Small firms

Safaricom and Kenya Commercial Bank  signed a deal that will see line between banking and telecommunication continue to blur.  Under the agreement, safaricom and KCB will jointly roll out different products with financial and telecommunications features.

First off was the launch of Biashar@Smart, a product targeting small and medium Enterprises (SMEs), and that has different financial and telecommunication aspects. The product will give businesses access to credit, insurance services, business advisories, online data storage, domain hosting and professional email services.




OPINION: Kenyan Universities- Where did we go wrong?


By Kevin Odongo

So it is the second decade of the 21st century, a Kenyan privileged enough to go to University still has lots of bragging rights. They have succeeded, nay, survived through high school. They may still be the first people to make it to university from their villages. They look very innovative and visionary.

Two or three years down the line, the visionary student has undergone radical changes. Having been in the university for that time, they are expected to have learnt a lot to help create jobs, improve service delivery across different fields, increase productivity and generally improve lives, but alas! The visionary has lost all hopes of ever making something big. They have reduced their dreams to reality. They have learnt how to play their cards. Know someone who knows someone-that’s what they have learnt. They have learnt the government does not listen to sound reasoning and ideas-neither does their university!

So the student starts being very ‘creative!’ Very opportunistic. A blackout in the evening when the student is busy making ugali is fully utilized. The motorists using roads around the university bear the students frustrations. Rocks are hurled at the cars. A motorist is never allowed to go peacefully until they appease the hungry, angry students. One thousand Kenyan shillings or about does the trick. Yes! One thousand shillings! The students are happy. They’ve got free cash. And Oh, God! It’s so much!

Yes! That’s how myopic the student becomes. They do not realize the millions of opportunities around them. They do not realize they could make millions just by utilizing that dark moment-in the right way.  They just see the quickest way- robbing their potential employers since they have lost the brains to help them be entrepreneurs and employers themselves.

The student remains a campus survivor, drunk seven days a week, playing computer games, watching   movies and smoking unholy substances in their free time. Always looking for a dark opportunity to exploit. There is no study in their lists of to-do. They believe the number one danger to human life is study-it kills the brain! Resulting in a coma!

Elections and campaign periods provide another leeway for these hoodlums. They ‘benefit’ a lot during these periods. All the politicians require their services. They are employed to punish political opponents and guard their masters. They have no permanent masters, they switch allegiance according to the depth of pockets. They are quick to use their body muscles in whatever scenario they are presented with. Their brain muscles remain un-utilized.

Looking backwards, you would wonder what changed, a very bright, visionary student reduced to sycophancy and boot-licking of godfathers, someone with no independence, very poor-not able to even think for themselves! Points to one thing, there is something terribly wrong with our universities. We are so busy being proud of being in the university that we do not pause to think if the university is really serving us right.

I do not have to mention that most top innovations worldwide were by College drop-outs, several successful business are by college drop-outs. It may be because college wastes great brains! These people may have just escaped from the ‘mass-wastage’.  I’m in no way suggesting that university education is not helpful, but I’m saying that there may be something wrong with our universities.

Take an example of University of Nairobi. Although, a leading university in the region, it takes in very bright students, the students who top in the country. Students who make headlines when high school test results are released. Yet that becomes the end of the news making, which shouldn’t be the case. The great brains should become better at the university and should make bigger headlines in the world. There are students who still manage to make headlines worldwide but if you asked them, it is unlikely they will mention being in a particular Kenyan university as a factor.  Kenyan universities do very little to engage students outside the classroom. They concentrate most in the classwork, some of which aren’t presented in a way that would help the student come up with something. The lecturers never challenge the students to try out something new, they are always told to follow set standards!

The government does nothing meaningful in the universities to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. It always wants you to take the painful steps through its offices to be listened to. Now with all these odds against the students, we still wonder why Kenyan universities are innovation deserts!?

©Kevin Odongo_2014_university_chronicles


By Kevin Odongo

Back in high school, I studied an Anthology,’Mayai Waziri wa Maradhi’ as part of Kiswahili literature. The anthology had this short story titled, Kachukua Hatua Nyingine. The story illustrated how one can very easily fall in to a path of self destruction.

It told of a young man who seemed destined for success but made one mistake after another that eventually ended in him taking his own life and leaving his young family in abject poverty. The downfall had began with him asking his wife to give up her job because he earned enough to support the family and he continued on this path, seemingly determined to ruin the family fortunes. Sadly, when one gets to the path of self-destruction it is almost impossible to get out. So it becomes one sure southward journey to doom. Why do I bring up this story?

Everyday of our lives we are faced with choices that we must make. The decisions we make have a direct impact on the paths that our lives take.

Today, a decision that seems so small and inconsequential may have far reaching influence on the final destinations of our lives. In fact, a bad choice today is bound to put one in a tight spot where further choices maybe limited to only difficult and bad ones, talk about putting oneself between a rock and a hard place. So that further choices will hurt you or those you care about no matter how you go about them.

For instance deciding today as a youth to bow to pressure and engage in crime so as to get the riches you desire or get the celebrity lifestyle you admire is one path that surely leads to doom. It will for sure rob you of the enjoyment of your youthful life. Once you walk down this path, you are likely to slip down to drug abuse to address the depression that comes with that kind of life. With drug abuse comes a lack of self control that will rob you of your ability to make sound judgments. This may lead one to engage in other risky behaviour that endangers their lives and/or the lives of others. Walking back out of this path is one precarious journey.

While these are things that we have heard before, we mostly take them for granted; always thinking there will be a second chance to rectify them. When faced with this kind of temptation, think about the teenagers who die on their first nights while ‘drink driving’, think of the married people who contract HIV the first night they cheat on their spouses. Always remember, you are not guaranteed a second chance so make the right choice the first time.

Solving Heavy Traffic  Problem in Nairobi

By Kevin Odongo

It normally takes me minimum two hours on the road from Embakasi area to the City Centre during the early morning when everyone else is going to work. Similarly, it takes me minimum two hours from the City Centre back home when again all Nairobians seem to be leaving work for home.  Compare this with the maximum 40 minutes that it takes me to and from the city centre when I use Rift Valley Railway’s Nairobi Commuter Trains, and you realize that we waste our lives on the road as Nairobians.

Nairobi’s traffic problems need to be solved. Then Nairobians can have more time to enjoy the homes that they struggle so hard to pay for. Then we can have more time to enjoy with family. Then, as parents, we can have more time to raise our kids in the ways that are desirable.

Picture this, an average Nairobian has to wake up earlier than 4am, not to do anything that builds them up like studying, but to beat the heavy traffic that characterizes the city roads from 5am.  What’s even more saddening is the fact that we have to endure the traffic and get back home later than 9pm in the night.

Now, spending five hours of your time every day on traffic is not something that you will be happy about. The frustration and fatigue that comes with spending these number of hours on the road reduces the effectiveness of one at work and generally affects the happiness of an individual. No wonder whenever happiness surveys are done worldwide, Kenyans do not make it to the list of happiest nations on earth.

Solving Nairobi’s traffic issues requires bold sacrifices and the political willingness to change the lives of the common Kenyan.

Firstly, we need to rethink our working times. It is the Kenyan culture to get to work at 8am and leave at 5pm, but just like we have dropped FGM because it didn’t serve us well, we perhaps need to change when some of us go to work. Kenya Power is in the forefront in ensuring we have a 24hour economy by providing the needed lighting. Now we need to see the government make a bold step by having some of their critical services offered 24hrs. This will ensure that some of the staff only get to work at night and those looking for the services can be served in the night.

Secondly, our trained transport engineers should live up to the task and propose solutions to these problems and partner with the government and the private sector to deliver these solutions. Our institutions of learning should be at the forefront in research aimed at coming up with these solutions.

While suggested rapid transit systems including light rail network and the dedicated commuter bus lanes will significantly improve traffic flow, we must think about other out-of-the-ordinary solutions instead of aping what has worked in other places and implementing them as they are.  Taking Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop as an example, our engineers should not be limited to the conventional way of thinking. We must go beyond what everyone else can think of as engineers because it is our job to see solutions that no one else can see.
We should have a lot more ways to get to work. More people using rail transport, bicycles, scooters, or over-head cable loops will see pressure on our roads reduce and a more productive nation.