Uganda’s scientific inventions look promising

The Daily Monitor, Uganda (Apr 8, 2009)

By JOHN K. ABIMANYI

On February 12 this year, the world celebrated 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and, 150 years after the publication of his famous but controversial book, On the origin of species.

A zoologist, naturalist and biologist, Charles Darwin realised and demonstrated the theory of natural selection, which stated that all species in life evolved over time from a common ancestry by adapting to new conditions of their environment. It thus implied that man could have evolved from other animals, probably the ape, and that he (man) was just another animal whose characteristics had changed differently from others so as to fit in his new environment.

There’s no doubt that it is scientific inventions and innovations like Darwin’s that have made life simpler and more sophisticated. Darwin’s inventions helped explain the variations amongst species, while other inventors like Sir Isaac Newton, the Wright brothers and Karl Benz are credited for inventing the studies and laws of motion, the aeroplane and automobile, respectively. The celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the most startling theory about man’s origins thus provide an opportunity to reflect on the progress that Uganda’s scientific inventions have made.

In 2008, Uganda cast two stars on the technology skies. Wilson Kutegeka, a software specialist, was awarded the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional Award for designing the Clinical Master software, used at the Joint Clinical Research Centre to monitor patients using ARVs.

Then, Steven Ntambi and a team of five other then Makerere University engineering students helped design a four–seater hybrid car that was exhibited at the Torino World Design Capital in Italy this year.

The two feats signify a reasonable level of advancement in Ugandans’ ability to make scientific inventions that could benefit the country at large. Batanga Nakisozi, a Ugandan software developer based in Massachusetts, US, said Kutegeka’s achievement brought closer to home the possibility of modernising many of Uganda’s sectors.

“Many sectors like the police, education, and health facilities don’t have computerised ways of keeping their data. There will be many organisations having access to cheaper software because it will be made in Uganda, instead of getting expensive software made from out,”she said.

However, Uganda’s software industry is still at the foot of its journey up the hill, says Ms Goretti Amuriat, a facilitator at ICT Cluster Limited. “We are not yet at a level where software developers can fully satisfy the market because there is still a lot of competition from foreign software.

Our quality is also not yet very good because we do not have the financing to do research and improve its quality,”she says, adding, “We are laying a ground for expanding software production and the industry is still in its initial stages.”

The four-seater hybrid car raised levels of optimism and created the possibility that soon, Ugandans could have the chance to drive homemade cars. Steven Ntambi acknowledges that the curiosity of Ugandan youths today has fuelled the surge in scientific innovations. “Yes, Uganda has made a lot of progress.

There are so many young people out there now who are curious. When you see what some are doing down there in the garages, you will be surprised,”he says. But his former lecturer, Prof. Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, an associate professor at the Faculty of Technology, disagrees. He notes that last year’s car designing feat does not illustrate progress because it was largely based on knowledge that had always been available.

“What we have is just a theoretical block of knowledge and we have always had that. I cannot say we have made much progress yet,”he says. Instead, he suggests that it was more as a result of a change in the students’ attitudes. “We had young people with passion who got to know various technologies and decided to use them to solve our problems here on earth,”he says.

There also is another form of inventions that usually go unnoticed. It’s usually done by a bunch of barely educated folk who learn their craft by either observation or sheer natural intellect.

Alfred Ssentongo, who makes saucepans from molten scrap metal in Kisenyi, says that it is work like this that is actually spearheading the advancement of Ugandan science and technology. “The real technology is down here and not up there in the offices of the educated,”says Ssentongo. “What makes this science even better than science you get from school is that it is Ugandan, and comes straight from the brain,”he says.

Freddie Kaggwa who also makes saucepans in Kisenyi says their activity has for long led the way in advancing technology inventions in Uganda. “We have come very far now. We can now make many things like saucepans of every size, that even schools can use, pails, charcoal stoves, kettles and suitcases that everyday people can use,”he says.

Gauging from the voices above, it is clear Ugandan scientific inventions have taken a step forward but still face a steep climb. They however all seem to agree to a series of factors that have slowed the progress of inventions in Uganda.

Prof. Tickodri-Togboa believes that Ugandans are now capable of building their own cars but lack the capital to turn it into reality. “We now have the human resource but we need financial resources. If we can get $2.5m, we could accomplish the first phase of building a car in three years,”he says.

For Kaggwa and Ssentongo, the shortage of funds has greatly hampered their efforts to advance technology. “Almost all our work is done by hand. We have don’t have machines to make our products look sleek. We lack the funds to acquire such machinery which will hence improve the quality of what we do,”says Kaggwa. There’s no doubt that a theoretical education system has helped create job seekers instead of inventors.

“It’s true. The education system confines us to thinking like this because it does not give much practice. It does not train you to go out and invent. You find those who teach you have nothing to show as well,”says Ntambi. Prof. Tickodri-Togboa realises the danger this has caused and notes that changes are in place to reverse the trend.

“We have now changed the paradigm of training from the lectures in class where we dictate notes to where we go out, identify a problem and let the students work around solving it like it was with the car,”he says. But it’s not only joblessness that many would-be inventing graduates face.

Even those who get jobs do not get an ample inventing environment at their jobs, says Prof Tickodri-Togboa. “The jobs are a form of survival and not a way to produce technologies,”he says. “There are no big industries here where my engineers can go and do research which will in turn help them make new technologies,”adds the professor.

There’s no questioning the advantage Ugandan inventions have been, and, would be to the country. “If you ask most ordinary Ugandans where they get the saucepans and kettles they use at home, they will tell you Kisenyi.”Prof Tickodri-Togboa also says the car his students designed is an answer to many problems. “When designing that car, we looked at how we can solve our problems like high fuel prices. We thus looked for a way to power these means of transport using other means like electricity,”he says.

It is important to note that great inventors like Charles Darwin and Guglielmo Marconi (radio) needed external funding before they could see the final success of their inventions. Marconi, who is credited for inventing the radio telegraph system, was forced to leave his motherland, Italy, because his work failed to win support from the authorities there.

On arrival to England, he received the support of the British Post Office and the rest became history. Henry Ford, who made the first car in America, also had to get funding from several rich men of his time to see his quadricycle come to reality.

With a faltering education system and poverty hindering the way forward, addressing those problems could be the missing link in the chain to have a Ugandan Darwin celebrated 200 years from now.
It could also be the difference between being a country with promise, and, actually delivering.