More than a Competition, JKUAT Tech Expo 8.0

By Gabriel Onyango

Started in 2011 by Calvin Kabati while still a student, the JKUAT Tech Expo brings together the brightest minds among university and college students, to display amazing innovations and compete for a cash prize. Over the years, the event has been phenomenal but this year’s edition was a cut above the rest.

I have attended four consecutive JKUAT Tech Expos, from way back in 2014 and over the years, have seen overwhelming innovations. Ranging from pavements that power street lights, out of energy generated by people as they walk, to a system of transmitting electricity without use of cables (Yes, it is possible).

In 2014, the winning team had a project of making tiles out of sand and paper bags, 2015 – juice, wine and yoghurt made from Khat (Miraa), 2016 – an irrigation system that conserved water by using a wick to water plants (similar to how a wick in a kerosene lamp would suck kerosene from the bottom container to the top).

However, among all these great innovations, how many have you seen in the market? How many have you used?

This year’s competition has had its share of amazing innovations too. For instance, have you ever gone into a supermarket and after shopping, looked at the long lines at the cashier and they made you feel like returning everything to the shelves?

Well, an innovation called Less Checkout System aims to address this problem; through a shopping cart/trolley that automatically detects and bills products as you put them in. By the time you are done shopping, your bill is ready and you can quickly pay and leave.

I saw drones that could carry up to 7Kgs in weight (meant for agricultural use), there was a portable shower (for the campers). In addition, we had a system that informs a user when their gas cylinder is low (imagine how useful this could be to gas sellers, who could tell when their clients would be refilling).

This time however, I am hopeful that some of these innovations will go beyond the expo and into the hand of Kenyans as ready products and services.

This year’s competition is a cut above the rest for one small reason; it is moving away from cash prizes and awards. In addition to the money, the winners will receive incubation from several stakeholders: Olive Gachara (KCB Lion’s Den), and Startup Wave (an international incubator).

This is different from the past where innovators would only win cash and gifts, along with the media coverage that comes with it. It would all be good for a week or two, then things get back to normal; the projects become nothing but stories of legend among the students.

This time, students will receive mentoring, help in piloting their projects, financial modeling, networks, finance etc. All to make sure that their projects stand a chance of becoming household names in Africa and beyond.

The University on the other hand also showed their will to support, when they revealed a team of directors tasked with helping student innovators disrupt industries. Providing support in Research (including funding), Production and Innovation, Intellectual Property Protection and Commercialization through the JKUAT Industrial Park (makers of the Taifa Laptop).

The strange thing is these services are that they have been in existence for a long time but few had known about their existence before the Tech Expo.

Industry players the world over have found learning institutions (Harvard, Stanford, MIT etc.) a rich place to find innovators to work with. The dream is that, going forward, local universities like JKUAT will join that privileged list.

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