Rethinking transformative pathways to equitable growth in Kenya: key research options for the Kenya’s Newton Utafiti Fund

Dr. Joanes Atela - African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS)


Kenya has witnessed a proliferation of research interventions on both international and national fronts. The country is a host to renowned research and development agencies such as the CGIARS, UN bodies plus several regional research, advocacy and policy bodies all of which are working to fix Kenya’s and wider Africa’s sustainability challenges.  Through these interventions, efforts have mainly concentrated to unlock technical and economic fixes for transforming livelihoods and economies, whether new agricultural technologies or ‘’robust’’ energy options or even huge infrastructural interventions.  While this approach to research has yielded some benefits including new technological solutions to emerging problems of hunger and energy poverty among others, the transformative value of these interventions remain unclear as most parts of Kenya’s population remain poor, food insecure alongside widening inequality gaps. Recently, there has been growing realization that certain underlying social drivers of change, if addressed, could help unlock the transformative potential of economic and technical fixes to pressing sustainability problems facing Kenya and Africa as a whole.  The launch of the Newton Utafiti Fund on 6-7th March 2017 in Kenya through marks a great turning point for Kenya to rethink and dig deep into some of the underlying social issues that have historically impeded transformations in priority socioeconomic sectors of Kenya.  As such, this blog offers some thoughts around some key areas and opportunities for social research that the Utafiti fund might benefit from.


About the Newton Utafiti Fund

The Newton Utafiti fund is a social and innovation research fund jointly supported by the governments of UK and Kenya.  The fund is supported through a partnership between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the UK and the Ministry of Education in Kenya. It is part of the wider Newton that now operates in over 15 countries globally and Kenya becomes the 16th country globally and third in Africa (after South Africa and Egypt) to establish the Newton Fund.  The fund was launched on 6-7th March 2017 and is expected to enhance bilateral science relationship between Kenya and UK through supporting requisite social and innovation research as well as capacity building.  The fund further aims to establish an international cohort of researchers with the necessary capabilities to tackle emerging global research challenges and enhance the impact of research on national and international development and cooperation.  To do this, the fund will focus on various key sustainability areas important to Kenya including food security, sustainable and renewable energy, health, environment and climate change as well as economic transitions through emerging opportunities such as big data innovation. The fund will be delivered/administered through the British Council on behalf of the UK government and the Kenya’s Ministry of Education through the National Research Fund (NRF) on behalf of the Kenyan government.


What are the transformative research options for the Utafiti this fund?

The main areas include pathways to social equity and wellbeing, evidence and knowledge for structural transformations in natural resource governance; understanding the process of research impacts and transformative partnerships and capacities.  These three areas are based on fundamental domestic and international development and environmental issues Kenya is facing and are also platforms for mutual and transformative partnerships between North-South issues both in terms of sharing research skills, methodologies and capabilities and co-learning:


  1. Pathways and options for social equity and wellbeing

Kenya and other African countries currently face various social concerns including demographic booms, social inequalities including gender based differences, rural-urban migration among others. This has resulted in high levels of economic inequalities, social exclusion both in decision making and wellbeing. A key social research need here is not necessarily about the needs of these different groups, but more about how to generate evidence on the drivers of these inequalities and provide some strategic insights on what options/pathways work for different groups and use these to inform more inclusive policy and programmatic decisions. These social concerns are also highlighted in  the report on sustainable development in Africa and the outcomes of the Africa Regional Consultative Meeting on the Sustainable Development Goals which stresses the need to address underlying  political, institutional, socio-cultural issues driving inequalities.  Unpacking these complex challenges would mean rethinking business, and setting transformative rather than confirmative research and development platforms and agendas. The Newton- Utafiti Fund - being social science focused- could support transformative social research that looks into these issues. To do this, it would require innovative research partnerships that can resist the pressure for expedient simplification, whilst maintaining a strong focus on practical responses – including the development of new concepts, tools and methods to confront the complex underlying social issues and present more feasible, inclusive and adaptive development solutions especially in key areas of climate change, agriculture, energy and demographic dividends. This kind of research would ideally take the form of action research that applies innovative, participatory and tested methodologies that would not only help unpack underlying social drivers and discourses of development but also provide opportunities for transformative partnerships including benefiting from the expertise of leading development think tanks in the UK. An example of a social science approach with potential to unpack these complexities is the STEPS Centre  pathways approach which ACTS and a few other institutions are utilizing to  try and unlock some underlying, historical, sometimes silent but important social issues driving inequalities. The approach helps in unpacking different options and pathways to sustainability for different social groups which can then inform more inclusive decisions.  Through such methods, it is possible to pursue more transformative social research questions such as:

  • How do different people including local communities, farmers, policy makers, extension officers, and research and development agencies frame and justify development and environmental solutions and whether synergies/convergence between various understandings? How the global environment and development agenda resonate with underlying Kenyan and African context?
  • What solutions have worked effectively in various contexts, how and for whom? And successful lessons can be assimilated into policies and other contexts? 
  • What is the underlying political economy of environment and development in Africa and Kenya in particular?  
  • What are the appropriate reorganizations required to improve Africa’s performance in the post-2015 SD goals? 

Looking at social science through the pathways lens has also been supportive to transformative partnership between UK and Africa (Kenya) especially where researchers are currently working together in applying these approaches in the Kenyan context to generate and disseminate evidence. An example of ongoing partnership that builds on the critical and applied social science questions is the Africa Sustainability Hub launched on 10 June 2015 by the Kenyan minister for Finance during a Low Carbon Development Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya. The hub brings together leading research and policy think tanks on sustainability in Africa, including the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), the STEPS Centre at the University of Sussex, the Africa Centre of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), and the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS). This partnership aims to harness research and policy on the kinds of sustainable technologies and innovation which could inform Africa’s actions in the post-2015 SDGs. The Africa Hub aims to utilize North-South and South-South leaning opportunities to pursue, in a participatory manner, socially inclusive evidence on various sustainability pathways, something new and unique from the way much of the social research and policy/practice has been pursued. In a crowded global research environment, the hub is a platform of international, trans disciplinary action-oriented work with a strong focus on practical responses – including the development of new concepts, tools and methods.

Some of the ongoing work under the hub include a number of various research projects such as the transformative knowledge network project looking into sustainability challenges facing pro-poor energy access and learning from other regional partnerships (see here The hub also convenes targeted short trainings especially for top East Africa policy makers on the role of social innovations for inclusive policy processes and effective partnerships and technology transfer. We held one event in March last year (see report here and will be holding a follow-up one with the same participants next month.  These initiatives under the hub have allowed the STEPS Centre/IDS researchers to work hand in hand with Africa base researchers in designing research, co-authoring publications and co-convening dissemination events and platforms in a more mutually engaging way.  Ultimately, capacity and capabilities of African researchers and policy makers who engage in the hub’s work are being enhanced as they start to embrace critical inclusive thinking and also asking hard questions- questions that were never asked by our predecessors.  The hub is now becoming an increasing attraction point for critical debates and even though not fully structured, it is gaining recognition both the national, regional and global levels as a possible example on how partnerships for sustainable development can effectively work. Examples of global events include the United Nations Environment Assembly (2015) (see associated blog here; International Atomic Energy Agency Scientific Conference many regional and national platforms yearning for a paradigm shift in partnerships. 

In brief the point here is that social research agendas that addresses underlying drivers of inequality from a partnership perspective provides unique opportunities for transformations that the world is really interested to know about.


  1. Evidence for structural transformations in resource governance

Other than looking into underlying drivers of social inequalities, Kenya and other African countries also would benefit from research and capacity building that addresses structural issues related to natural resource governance. This is because Kenya largely depend on natural resources especially land based resources such as land, water, forests for economic development and livelihoods. Additionally, the country as in many other African countries is increasingly committing these resources towards international partnerships and actions on global environment and development agendas under the Paris Agreement (through country NDCs) and the SDGs.  Whereas Kenya has enacted very good laws and policies on natural resource governance and is indeed one of the first Africa country to establish climate change laws through the climate change Act of parliament signed by the president last year, the country is still grappling with how to handle the complex interactions, histories, processes, ecosystems, and politics that interlock across various resource pools e.g. forest and land; forest and water among others. This is further occasioned by the historical governance regimes that have been characterized by sector based approaches and path dependencies in resource governance that result in conflicts between socio-political interests in the resources and ecological functioning of these resources.  As such, a major knowledge gap remains on generating evidence, information and capabilities to inform more integrated resource governance framework that accounts for both the socio-political interest and ecological functioning of resources. I do believe that a well-designed action oriented social science research that interrogates these governance issues could bridge this gap.  This research area is critical in that it will add value and knowledge for better lives in Kenya and Africa but also improve the effectiveness of international partnerships and interventions targeting these resources for the global good.


  1. Bridging research and practice: understanding research-impact processes 

Bridging the gap between research and scientific knowledge generated and development impact remains a major gap in Kenya and of course in many developing nations. This is because the two have often operated in isolation thus several investments in research have failed to yield adequate and/or expected development impacts. So far, Kenya has no effective platforms for enhancing research into use or for communicating and disseminating useful research lessons. The common platforms used currently are often limited to stakeholder consultative workshops and seminars that are one off and do not pursue or track knowledge use. The reason here might not necessarily be that ongoing research do not have potential to create impact, but perhaps because researchers do not understand what pathways exist to realizing the impact of the research. These include knowledge gaps on what best practices and lessons around processes of achieving impact through research including how to engage key decision makers in the research process. This concern was highlighted during the conference on the impacts of   ESRC-DFID research support held in March in Pretoria, South Africa with the aim of sharing lessons  and experiences on how a decade of ESRC-DFID research support has impacted on poverty reduction.  The conference noted that there is still a real need to not only invest in action research but also to focus on ways in which funded research can achieve impact (Also see my blog on this here As such a key knowledge gap here remains in supporting research and capabilities/capacity on understanding the process of achieving research impact including designing and developing knowledge sharing platforms and options relevant to different stakeholders and continuous engagement with a diversity of stakeholder in research design and processes. Investing in these issues would be more strategic and critical for the new UTAFITI fund which is usefully more contextualized.   


  1. Transformative capacity building and partnerships

As already highlighted, all the above areas would thrive well and sustainably under well designed partnership and capacity building platforms.  While already there are several ongoing capacity building initiatives, these needs to be better coordinated, targeted and looked into from a long term perspective.  Investing in capacity building platforms that are need based, targeted and long term could be useful in enhancing capabilities.  Such platforms could support long term continuous programmes on capacity building targeting specific social knowledge issues such as the ones I have raised above. Most importantly, such targeted capacity building platforms could embrace integrated approaches where the capacity building process is not just about delivering lectures but where target stakeholders are allowed to also exchange knowledge and further generate knowledge and evidence for improving the system. An example in the East Africa Capacity Building Initiative that was initiated last year under the Africa sustainability hub.  The initiative builds on the nomination of ACTS as one of the climate change centres of excellence for capacity building following very successful events at COP 22. The East Africa initiative is aimed at feeding into this global platform by undertaking capacity building on key elements of the Paris Agreement including innovation system builder, transparency, MVR systems and climate finance. The East Africa initiative will run for three years and will aim to provide short trainings, platforms for exchanges and expert portals where a range of experts are registered to support the capacity work. As highlighted earlier, we undertook two trainings last year focusing on innovation systems and climate finance (designing GCF project proposals).  Both were attended by an average of 35 participants holding key positions in governmental and non-governmental agencies across East Africa.

Lastly I wish to emphasize that through the hub, all these are taking place within  the platform of transformative partnership where  African research institutions under the hub drive the process and provide necessary evidence and knowledge on the African context while from these international partners, African institutions can draw lessons and expertise transformative  approaches to tackling complex problems.