Education, innovation and helicopter dreams

This week began in a rather interesting way. On Monday evening while scanning the Rwandan TV channels, I landed on a story of two men from the Northern Province with one dream; to make helicopters.

This week began in a rather interesting way. On Monday evening while scanning the Rwandan TV channels, I landed on a story of two men from the Northern Province with one dream; to make helicopters.

What made the story particularly intriguing is that neither of the two was an aeronautic engineer! The first was a 65 year old plumber from Musanze and the other was a welder from Rulindo who appeared to be in his mid-thirties.

 

After they were both interviewed by TV1 reporters, I was further amazed by their courage given that neither had ever seen any sort of plane up-close let alone travel in one. They just shared one thing in common; a passion that is unique to inventors.

 

According to a story that appeared on igihe.com, Mr. Kaziyake the 65 year old from Musanze first got the idea of making a plane in 1970 as a 20 year old when he made a ‘flying toy’ named ‘Hagini’.

 

Ntirimeninda from Rulindo got his idea as a 16 year old high school student in senior three in 1993. He embarked on the project five years later and has been tinkering with it for the last 18 years!

These two stories may both sound crazy but that’s what makes them great.

Between 1900 and 1903, two brothers named Orville and Wilbur decided to tinker with human flight. By 1905, they had come up with what they called a ‘flying machine’.

This became the first practical fixed wing aircraft whose flight was based on three- axis control, an invention that is still a standard used in the aviation industry today. As readers might have figured, the two brothers are more popularly known by their surname as “the Wright brothers”, the fathers of modern aviation.

What did the Wright brothers have in common with likes of Kaziyake and Ntirimeninda? Apart from an obvious passion for amateur aviation, their backgrounds are eerily similar despite the geographical separation. The Wright brothers were high school dropouts who run a bicycle repair shop before their adventures in aviation.

Their first encounter with a plane was at ages 7(Orville) and 11(Wilbur) when their father bought them a toy plane which they destroyed and rebuilt.

They were self-taught and even dared go against the conventional wisdom of the time; trying to build powerful engines as the basis of flight. The Wright brothers focused on balance and control instead.

Innovation particularly in technology has been heralded as the basis of economic transformation throughout history. Africa’s constant grapples with poverty are indeed blamed largely on the stagnation of technological advancement since the Iron Age.

Leading scholars such as Rodney Walter place the weight of Africa’s woes on the shoulders of the exploitative nature of historical interactions with foreigners particularly Europeans. That is a notable debate but not one to be addressed by this article.

What is clear is that formal education, whose pinnacle is a university degree, tends to stand in the way of the innovator. Standard school tests require students to reproduce existing knowledge without altering or adding to it.

In fact, star students tend to be those with elephantine memories who can absorb unrelated facts in up to ten different subjects with little time for original thought. I do not know who Kaziyake and Ntirimeninda’s contemporaries at school were, but I doubt that the two were the brightest in their classes.

I can bet my last franc that the sharpest of their lot ended up in some smart office in the civil service or a bank somewhere.

How then do we hope for economic transformation if our best brains are ‘pen pushers and bean counters’?

Do not get me wrong, every country needs technocrats. My argument is that it does not require geniuses to implement policies and administer public institutions but innovation does essentially require one to think outside the usual parameters.

What the youth of Rwanda need today are role models in the mold of Kaziyake and Ntirimeninda.

However, if such bold and daring souls continue to wallow in poverty and are seen as lone rangers, this sends alarm signals to the youth. Human beings respond to incentives, explicit or implicit.

If civil servants and technocrats such as bankers are seen to do better than entrepreneurs in society, the young will continue to aim their ambitions at joining the technocrat class of society.

There must be incentives for innovation. Perhaps a start would be in significant national cash prizes for innovation and special business status for innovators. The youth need to be encouraged to go it alone and create jobs for themselves. The model of spending 16 years at school only to come out to look for employment is not sustainable.

The number of graduates coming out of Rwandan universities is growing rapidly every year without a similar growth in the job market. It’s only a matter of time before we join our East African neighbors whose problems with youth unemployment are well documented. In Uganda for example, as of 2014, 83% of youth were unemployed!

Unemployment among the youth is a form of economic waste. The country as a whole ends up paying for it in a disguised form. The saying that “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” is not without truth. Societal ills such as crime, drug abuse and irresponsible parenting are a likely result of an unproductive youth population.

Recent reforms in the education sector to encourage technical and vocational education training (TVET) are a step in the right direction. This needs to be followed up by exit plans to empower graduates to convert their skills into productive business ventures to create employment for themselves and others.

The ministry of Trade and Industry’s flagship project “HANGUMURIMO” would do well to target these TVET students while still at their training centers to allow these youth to shape their business ideas before leaving school and perhaps base their final year projects on practical ideas that they can continue to pursue upon graduation.

In the meantime, l will toast to the Helicopter dreams of ‘the Rwandan Wright brothers’; Kaziyake and Ntirimeninda!

The author is a consultant and trainer specialising in Finance and Strategy. He is based in Kigali.

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