Why Data is the new oil and there’s lots of money in it

In the last one year, I have met graduates from some top universities –University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University of Michigan, Leeds University and University of California, Berkeley — doing research in Kenya.

They are on average younger than our graduate students. Their approach to data collection is also different. They prefer open discussion instead of long questionnaires. Their topics range from international relations to local perceptions of Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). They are doing research on SGR before it is completed as we argue who should take credit for it.

It is interesting without being derogatory that as students from other universities embark on global studies, focusing on other countries, our students prefer local studies. They prefer projects or thesis focusing on the firms they work for or the counties or towns they are domiciled.

It is often during the project/thesis stage when you get to know where the student works or comes from. The coded reason for the popularity of such research sites is availability of data and low costs. But there is a trade-off. They save money and finish faster but lose on exposure, global competitiveness and new thinking, the end result of any serious research.

The global exposure gives students from other universities a head-start not just in their careers whether in academia, research or private/public sector. They are more likely to work in globally oriented bodies like the United Nations (UN). Their exposure is also an asset if they decide to be entrepreneurs.

Honest brokers


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Through research and departure from “comfort zones”, their localities, they come to understand our markets, our cultures, preferences, dislikes and our soft underbellies. I am always amazed by the amount of information about Kenya available on the CIA website. It is no wonder that in international negotiations, we are outfoxed because the negotiators on the other side of the table have more information about us.

Beyond media reports, we lack in-depth understanding of other countries and their cultures which you can only learn by living in there or through serious research or exchange programmes. Incidentally, some Kenyans abroad prefer to study their own country in their projects or thesis. The argument is that if they do not study their own country, no one will. But my experience in the last one year shows otherwise.

Data collected and analysed by graduate students become a key ingredient in policy-making in their mother country. In the West and most developed countries, academics are held in high esteem, their ideas are much sought-after. They easily make it to boards of major corporations, advise governments and help set economic and political agenda. Remember how Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan adopted ideas fronted by Milton Friedman? Academics are sought after because their ideas ought to be ahead of their time. They are also supposed to be “honest brokers”, driven by objectivity.

Data and information from such graduate research is handy for firms venturing abroad. Knowledge of markets, regulation, cultures and legal systems gives multinational corporations a head-start in their business. Ever wondered why it is so difficult for Kenyan firms to enter international markets? Apart from textbooks and stereotypes, we rarely do serious research on other markets. Who are best-placed to do such studies better than graduate students; young and energetic.

How many Kenyans have done any primary research in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and other countries? We think we know about them. A good example. I have no problem using Kenya shilling in Uganda. In Tanzania, I was told flatly in one hotel, I can only use TZ shilling or USD. Why the difference? Do Uganda and Tanzania equate quality to price?

We have done very little research on China, an emerging global economic power. What drives an average Chinese? What do they do with their money? Even India closer home is an enigma. How do you run a democracy of 1 billion people? How did India become the pharmacy of the world as China became the workshop of the world? How did Singapore become a developed world so fast? We think we know it’s about good leadership.

But just check the number of patents registered there and compare with Kenya. How can we expand trade with people we do not know? How can we set up businesses in countries we do not understand? It is like marrying strangers.


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Archaic ideologies

All these questions can be easily answered by our graduate students or researchers not Government officials or politicians such as MCAs, senators and MPs on bench-marking tours. They lack objectivity and have other things to think about. The last time I overheard a discussion about an MCA on a bench-marking tour, I was told all he could recall was a turbulent flight that made him pray!

We blame money for localisation of research but it is more than that. We have never seen research as strategic thrust in our quest for economic growth. We have built institutions that support research and its outputs but rarely do we channel that research into national thinking. We have research institutes best known with their acronyms like, KIPPRA, KARLO to KEFRI, ILRI, ICRAF, KIRDI and more.

There was once a dream to create a research ecosystem. That is why Veterinary Laboratories, Kenya Vaccines Research Institute and International Livestock Institute (ILRI) and UoN School of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences are neighbours. Building global links or strengthening the current ones will energise research.

Integrating research with universities ensures a steady supply of thinkers. Engaging the youth in research is one way to take advantage of their idealism and the fact that they are not yet prisoners of old thinking and archaic ideologies.

Luckily, there are efforts to do that through National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) and other new firms. Truthfully, new ideas spawned by research and big data represent the next economic battle ground. Are we ready for it?

The writer is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi.


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