Research and Tech in Kenya – Are we doing enough of both?

There is a lot of talk about innovation in tech.  Indeed, Kenya is fondly named the ‘Silicon Savannah’ because of its vibrant tech scene. If the number of tech competitions and tech startups is to go by then we are quite literally throwing all our eggs in the tech basket. In fact, most of us who are in the tech scene have attended at least one pitch competition that seeks to showcase tech innovations. Each of our 60 plus universities offers one IT degree or the other. Even the Kenyan government has not been left behind, what with the distribution of laptops to schools and launching of digital programs, but those are stories for another day.  Similarly, there has been a lot of talk about coding and programming in most countries in the world. There is almost a worldwide push towards getting people to write code, examples being Hour of Code, Africa Code Week, and President Obama’s own Computer Science For All .

Yet, it seems to me that we are holding tech on our right hand and research on our left; then we do not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. About a week ago I gave a talk on research and tech at the ‘African Women in Tech’ conference by AkiraChix. We played a simple game where participants go around the room to find a person who can tick any of the statements on a sheet of paper. One of the statements was ‘I am interested in research but I do not know where to start’. Almost all the sheets came back with that statement ticked. While this is a trivial example and this simple experiment was not controlled, it indicates that while we have done a whole heck of a lot to make coding and tech look ‘cool’, we have done very little, if at all, to make research look equally as cool. And if that is the case, what then is the basis and motivation for all the tech innovations that we seem to be producing?

There is an apparent disconnect between Kenyan academic institutions, which should ideally be the sources and inspiration of research, and the tech ecosystem. Eleanor Marchant wrote a brilliant article that asked the question: University-based research inspired Google – is research needed to inspire Kenyan innovators too? But it would be difficult for universities to inspire any innovation while our students are seeking ‘research services’ from publicly-advertised vendors. Worse that most of our universities do not have measures to curb or detect plagiarism and unoriginal work. If they did, then these ‘research services’ would have run out of business a long time ago. Instead, they are thriving, complete with business cards openly distributed to students and faculty. As Dr. Franceschi asked in his article, Kenyan universities do hardly any research – who has the time? It is a small wonder that the World Bank raised concern on the quality of Kenyan graduates.

Advertisement for ‘Research Services’ at a street in Nairobi

In my first article on this blog, I wrote about the need for additional practical tests in programming courses at Kenyan institutions. I was happy to see that Sidney Ochieng’ had expressed similar sentiments in an open letter  to Kenyan Universities teaching Computer Science. While it is just as well to teach programming languages, we have not done very well in teaching our students how to combine their programming skills with good problem identification, proper background motivation, correct design, and finally, implementation. So we end up with a generation of students with the ‘hackathon’ mentality, where they take a question and run to the keyboard. Indeed, no matter how many people gather at a hackathon, unless there is an existing pre-and-post plan for the project, nine women cannot make a baby in one month.

One of the ways that we can get people thinking about research and tech as one package, and not two separate and unrelated things, is by asking the hard questions at tech hubs, schools, and competitions. Sure, it is great to know the cost projections and user uptake of an application, but I think we have forgotten the basics of what makes any innovation great and impactful in the long-term: the why, the how, and the so what. This is such a problem! So much so that most IT faculty would tell you that supervision of final-year projects is a long, boring and laborious task of listening to yet another recycled idea that was thought of the night before. Sadly, we see very few, if at all, final-year projects that see the light of day beyond the need to tick a box of completion towards graduation. In fact, it is not strange to listen to tech presentation and hear that the  motivation behind the application is that the developer thought it was “cool” or “a nice thing to do”. It is also not strange that, when asked if they have tested the application, the presenter would say, “yes the app is running properly”. Meaning that their idea of testing is testing by themselves in their room and over their laptop, not testing with real users, and certainly not designing with potential users.

So then, the combination of research and tech needs to be repackaged. We have long sold the tech idea and it has sold in trucks and barrels. Unfortunately, the tech idea is still very much the “overnight solution” and the “quick money product”. Unfortunately, also, after the excitement of the pitch is gone, we are left with innovators who struggle to keep a product useful and that really resonates with users. To this, I ask several questions:

  • What if we teach our apprentices, students, and innovators the fundamental skill of identifying good problems that they care about and that potential users would care about?
  • What if we teach them how to work with users as the originators of the problem and not developers as the originators of a (sometimes imaginary) problem?
  • What if we teach them how to work with users right from a throw-away prototype to the final product, as opposed to testing only an end product?
  • What if we teach them design strategies that are not based on ‘nice to have’ but based on user feedback and evaluation results?
  • What if we teach them that the justification of using a mobile phone as a platform should not be “everyone has it” but because they can justify it as a better tool for the innovation than say, a website?
  • What if we teach them that transferring an application from a website to a mobile phone is not innovation, it is actually just migration?
  • What if we create tech-hubs that are not merely spaces for developers to hurdle over their laptops, but ones that are spaces for team collaborations and spaces for potential users to come in and work with innovators on product inception and design?
  • What if, as researchers and innovators, we combine our own tech innovations with sound research as an example to upcoming students and innovators?

Indeed, research should not be this gigantic monster that is the preserve of academia and industry researchers. Research in tech should ideally be a combination of passion for a problem, active involvement of users throughout the process, application of sound principles of inception and design, and only as the very last thing, implementation. Yes, there is a lot of talk about innovation in tech. Perhaps it is the time that we enrich the talk on what innovation actually means so that it does not just mean ‘a new app’.


Tips on writing award-winning scholarship essays

A good education can be expensive. As a result, a good number of students apply for full or partial scholarships to pursue their studies at reputable institutions of their choice. Indeed, it is that time of the year when most scholarship bodies place a call to potential applicants for 2017 academic fellowships. For example, the Women Techmakers Scholars Programme, formerly Google Anita Borg, is now accepting applications until December 1st, 2016. There are also opportunities for faculty and students to apply for travel grants to a conference.  Examples include, ACM-W that supports undergraduate and graduate women in Computer Science and Kenya Education Network travel grant that supports Kenyan faculty and students to attend conferences.  In addition to awards that aim to support one’s studies and travel, there are several opportunities that provide networking, exposure, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For example, the prestigious Heidelberg Laureate Forum that is open to 200 male and female Mathematics and Computer Science young researchers worldwide, and Queen’s Young Leaders award that recognizes exceptional young people from all backgrounds who are making an impact in their communities.  What is common to many, if not all, of the award and scholarship applications is that they require at least one thorough and well-written essay. In this post, I share some tips that could act as pointers to writing good award/scholarship essays and applications. These tips have been drawn from my own experiences as a recipient of awards/scholarships such as Google Anita Borg (EMEA) (2014), Schlumberger’s Faculty for the Future (2015), and Heidelberg Laureate Forum Young Researcher(2015).

  1. A good scholarship/award application starts long before one starts writing the application. It goes without saying that it would be impossible (and dishonest) to write about what you are not. Given that most scholarship and award applications require a real example from one’s experiences on leadership, community involvement, and overall track record, one then has to have the said track record. Granted, one should not get involved in initiatives or accept leadership positions with the aim of applying for grants or scholarships, but these experiences go a long way in setting you apart. Therefore, in addition to the advantage of growing as an all-rounded individual, I encourage aspiring applicants to go beyond the classroom/workplace and get involved in useful initiatives and leadership positions that are within their skills.
  2. What else do you have to offer? While it is brilliant to have a G.P.A of 4.0 or to rake in A’s and B+’s, it might not be enough. More and more, scholarship bodies prefer applicants who are more than just good students. I read somewhere that interviewers and application reviewers would like an applicant with whom they could be friends or cordial colleagues outside the selection process. Hence, having a life outside the classroom that one is actively contributing to, is the extra ‘x factor’ that reviewers are looking for. It is even more rewarding if that contribution is about other people in the form of mentorship, innovation towards a good cause or development, and community service. This shows that you are not just about yourself.
  3. Lying is not the quality of a winner. Unfortunately, it is true that some people claim to have qualifications and experiences that they have never received. I believe that a scholarship panel worth its salt would be able to pick out an untrue claim. This goes for both academic and social entries on one’s CV or application. For instance,  I was asked to recite a poem during one scholarship interview. It turns out that I had written that I love to read and write poems. Fortunately, this was a true claim and I knew one of my poems off-head. While this might be a trivial example, it goes to show that lying on scholarship applications is a risky undertaking. I will not belabor the unethical, even illegal, consequences of doing this.
  4. Do your homework. Now that you have established that you fulfil point 1 to 3 and have started writing the application, how much do you know about the award/scholarship that you are applying to? Why do they offer this scholarship? Which personalities are associated with the award? What kind of work are they involved in or were they involved in? Who are the past winners of this award/scholarship? Apart from having a general overview of the purpose of the scholarship/award, I suggest four exercises that applicants can undertake in order to demonstrate this:
    • How do you fit in the purpose of the scholarship? What part of your current or past work demonstrates this?
    • Cite personalities or people associated with the award. Having done your homework on who else is associated with the award, do not be afraid to use these examples to show that you understand their principle. Further, it makes for an even better essay if you can juxtapose examples from a session or conference you have attended where you met or listened to the people who you mention. For example, the following  are extracts that I used in one of my applications:
    • In October 2014 I had the privilege of being one of the eight thousand women in computing who attended the Grace Hopper Convention, where Professor Shafi Goldwasser gave the keynote address. As one of the few women who have received the ACM Turing award, I was excited and keen to listen to her. She talked about the cryptographic lens through which theoretical computer science can be viewed. Further, she talked about how

    • I knew of Ronald Rivest, Leonard Adleman, Adi Shamir in my RSA cryptography class at undergraduate computer science. I read about Leslie Lamport when I was learning how to use LaTex. I was lectured on Niklaus Wirth when I took my first introduction to computer systems class in first year. Therefore, I hope that I will be accorded the opportunity to meet these and other computer scientists who pioneered what I have learnt so far. I believe that I am at the right

  5. Do not be afraid to use good reviews or feedback on your work. While we have been conditioned not to talk about ourselves, modesty might be your undoing when it comes to awards/scholarship applications. Of course, I am not advocating for full blown self-trumpeting, but if a client, an examiner, or a supervisor has taken the trouble (and the pleasure) to write a good review you can surely use it. True, it takes an extra step to learn how to talk about one’s work while also maintaining due humility. However, the ability to show that you have done work that has fulfilled a purpose or satisfied a client (with evidence of this) is a great way to prove that you can be depended upon to keep delivering if granted the award/scholarship.
  6. Use data and statistics from your own situation. While it might be alright to use data and statistics from the Internet and those based on others’ experiences, it is way better to use your own raw data. For example, it is easy to claim that only 30% of students in STEM at institutions of higher learning are girls because a certain site says so. However, what about doing your own count and giving statistics based on your own scenario? You might find that the situation is much worse at your own institution (in which case your motivation is stronger), or you might find that the situation is at ‘80% of students in STEM are girls’ at your institution (in which case you might need to cast your net wider for comparison’s sake).
  7. Do not rely on ‘template’ referees. References can make or break your application. The key advice that I can give here is not to get your references from people who do not know you or your work. Or sadly, from lazy referees. The risk here is that such referees are likely to use a standard template to write your reference, where all the references that they write read ‘Miss X is a very intelligent individual who is exceptional at her work.’ Yet, if asked what Miss X’s work is they would not be able to describe it. Hence, it is crucial that one builds professional relationships with qualified individuals (such as supervisors, advisors, and mentors) well and long enough for them to write unique references that are a true reflection of one’s personality and work.
  8. Have a plan to give back. I call this a golden rule. This is golden because it is very easy that after the jubilation of being selected and the euphoria of winning, we forget to give back to the foundation, society or company of whom we are benefactors. In some cases, like the Google Anita Borg Scholarship, there is often an internal plan on how one can give back in the form of involvement in outreach activities. In other cases, there is no elaborate plan but I strongly advise that one should have it nonetheless. Giving back does not necessarily involve monetary tokens. In fact, it rarely does unless if in future one is willing and able to contribute to a fund. Giving back can involve involvement in outreach activities that promote the fund, mentorship of potential applicants and future scholars of the fund, and participation in initiatives associated with the funding company. My motto for this is that ‘Once an X scholar/fellow, always an X scholar/fellow’, where X is whatever foundation or company that one is a beneficiary of. Lastly, if the space of the application allows, it does not hurt to indicate how you would wish to get involved beyond the award if selected.
  9. Have your essays proof-read by someone else or an editor. It always helps to have a trusted second pair of eyes to read through your essays.

To tie it all together, like a good abstract, your essay should answer the ‘what?’, ‘why?’, ‘how?’, and ‘so what?’ questions.

Good luck in your application should you be considering submitting one!

The need for additional practical tests in programming courses at Kenyan institutions

I teach Object Oriented Programming (OOP) and Graphical User Interface (GUI) programming using Java. At the end of a term during which I taught OOP I conducted an evaluation of the course. One of the common sentiments from students was that they needed more lab hours and practical sessions in order to practice programming. While this might sound like an obvious sentiment to most people who teach programming or to those who work as programmers, it might not be an obvious choice for students who study part-time and have only 3 hours a day to attend classes after a full day at work. Most of my students are part-time students. It might also not be an obvious choice for institutions that have to share limited resources (computer laboratories) among the many courses that they offer, leaving occupancy of labs to at least 70% lecture time and very little time to students’ personal learning and to dedicated practical sessions.

The combination of limited resources, limited time for students to attend classes, the need to complete the syllabus within a strict amount of time, and sometimes the lack of availability of lecturers during extra hours, produces students who complete programming classes and somehow manage to pass exams, but who cannot write a ‘Hello World’ program without conducting a quick Google Search. The fact that students manage to pass theory exams is not a good indication of their abilities in programming for two reasons: (i) considering the aforementioned factors, the students are likely not to have gone through enough (if at all) practical sessions to hone their programming skills; and (ii) in most Kenyan institutions a theoretical end-of-semester exam takes a bigger percentage of the overall assessment marks (60% or 70% in most places), which in my opinion is too much a portion to assign to a practical course such as programming. Further, it is no secret that a good number of Kenyan students cram their way through university. Indeed, the quality of Kenyan education has been decried by many. This is a constant conversation that I have been part of on Twitter (@evangelinechao), and it is one that has been written about by others in local newspapers and blogs [1,2].

While it might seem that it is difficult to increase the practical sessions for students and possibly introduce more practical tests and exams for subjects like programming, there are some potential opportunities to contribute to a solution. My suggestions are:

  1. For researchers in educational technology to design and experiment with technologies that could potentially support students to learn programming or other practical subjects through learning-by-doing and not by merely reading text. It is this motivation that led to my PhD research, which focused on enabling students to construct Java programs on their mobile phones [3,4]. This is still my current research interest and I am working on additional experiments in this area.
  2. To experiment with flexible models that work around limited resources and students’ availability. I am currently teaching GUI programming. In order to plan around the available limited resources, I made arrangements to secure extra lab hours (in addition to the 3 hours set for the class) a month in advance. In order to ensure that students would be available during the extra hours I spoke to students who would potentially take GUI programming, before they registered for the course, to find out the hours they might be available outside the lecture time. With this, I was able to come up with a course schedule that included the lecture material during the set class hours and the practical material that we shall cover during the extra lab hours. During our first lesson 100% of the full time students and 95% of part time students confirmed that they will be able to attend the extra lab hours. Further, this model allows me the time to conduct practical continuous assessment tests. While this model will require me to work overtime it is one that I am willing to follow through in order to measure students’ programming skills, their ability to work on practical tests and ultimately their general performance in the subject.
  3. Institutions can either reduce the percentage of marks that are allocated to theoretical examinations in practical subjects or they can introduce practical examinations for practical courses. With such adjustments institutions might be forced to allocate additional resources, time, instructors and teaching assistants to the practical aspects of courses such as programming.

Institutions might not be able to change their working models overnight nor can they instantaneously provide additional resources, but teachers and researchers have the responsibility and ability to experiment with models that might work for them and their students. Further, documenting and sharing various experiences and models by academics would be a good source for best practices. Additionally, researchers have the opportunity to use the resources that their students have (such as mobile phones and tablets) to provide the much-needed practical solutions that will enable our students to graduate with practical skills. Needless to say, we should not resign to producing students who have not acquired adequate skills while riding on the excuse of limited resources, among other factors. Limited resources and limited time for students might be our current reality but such factors are certainly a great source of ideas for experiments and invention, or just that they provide big rooms for improvement.



[2] Munene, I. (2016). Kenya’s universities are in the grip of a quality crisis. The Conversation. Retrieved from

[3] Mbogo, Chao, Edwin Blake, and Hussein Suleman. “Initial Evaluation of a Mobile Scaffolding Application That Seeks to Support Novice Learners of Programming.” International Association for Development of the Information Society (2014).

[4] Mbogo, Chao, Edwin Blake, and Hussein Suleman. “Design and Use of Static Scaffolding Techniques to Support Java Programming on a Mobile Phone.” Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education. ACM, 2016.