There is a new CEO at the helm of the National Research Fund (NRF) and he is a familiar face for most of us at Multimedia University of Kenya (MMU). Prof. Dickson Andala has been the Chairman of the Chemistry Department at MMU and has nurtured many innovators and researchers.
I met him at his office and even in his new position, he remains the same humble, approachable man he has always been. He does things like stand up to get sugar for my tea since I am his guest. He loves football and is supporting Brazil and cheering for Senegal where the World Cup is concerned. He has a warm nature that is in contrast with the mental image one has of most CEOs, however, even with that, he commands respect. This is why when he speaks, people listen.
At the time of the interview, he has been in office for about two months and is still settling into the new position and organisation. In all the bustle, and what I found to be a full calendar, he prioritizes an interview for the MMU Graduation Magazine, though he is quick to inform me that things move quickly and he might be interrupted in the course of our discussion.
Who is Prof. Andala?
That’s an easy and difficult one at the same time. To start with, I am a professor (teacher), researcher, mentor and networker in the fields of materials science and inorganic chemistry, with a focus on nanoscience and nanotechnology.
In the Kenyan space, I am involved with shaping the research ecosystem with regards to policy development in science, technology and innovation. I most recently spearheaded the Nanotechnology Policy and it was taken up by KIRDI and KAIST (the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology which is coming up at Konza). Its uptake has been increasingly embraced since recent developments in technology have revolved around nanotechnology. I also spearheaded the Nuclear Regulatory Act, in 2019, while I was a Board Member at the Kenya Nuclear Regulatory Authority (KNRA). I have left them driving the regulations to operationalize the Act. Similarly, I’m a member the Kenya Academy of Sciences (KNAS).
In Africa, I am a Director at African Materials Research Society (AMRS), an African initiative to promote material science. I am also an Executive Committee Member to Africa Crystallographic Association (AfCA). Similarly, I’m part of the inaugural African Academy of Science (AAS) Affiliate (2016 -2020) a recognition bestowed to young upcoming researchers in Africa.
Family wise, I am a family man, a father and mentor to many youths.
How old are you?
Men don’t say their ages. (Laughs)
Well you have achieved a lot and you look quite youthful.
I think the prime age when most people can achieve a lot is between 30 and 50. I am somewhere between there. After 50, I want to bask in the sun and enjoy my life.
Does that mean retiring at 50?
Sometimes you want to retire but the call of duty keeps you active. If for example I get an appointment to a Board, I would serve but this is probably the last job I will look for.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Kakamega. I was there for primary and high school then I came to Nairobi for university, thereafter I went to the US for another 6 years for further studies. I was a Teaching Assistant while I was studying and after that I came back home. That was at around the time many universities in Kenya were being chartered, including MMU, and when I got the opportunity, I moved.
Have you completely left MMU or will you still lecture?
I still lecture the masters’ students and I have those that I am supervising. I cannot abandon them. However I have discovered that it is unfair to the students since I am not able to give them enough time for consultations. In the future, I will not take another unit.
You are clearly committed to mentorship. Is that how you ended up as the Patron of MMU Innovation Club?
I filled the position at that time because I knew what needed to be done. When I came, to MMU there was limitation in the material science space and I was able to link up students with what they needed in terms of partnerships, product development, and patenting. I helped them with their innovations and in grant writing.
MMU was a small university and we all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. I fit perfectly in that space. Besides, I have always been research and innovation oriented, it is not an accident that I am in this position (CEO) today.
So do you believe that your time at MMU contributed to your appointment as CEO of NRF?
Yes, of course.
Every organization I have ever worked for has helped me. For example, because of the network I made while studying, SUNY-Binghamton, in the United States America, I was able to continue my research when I came back home even though we didn’t have the state –of-the-art labs and equipment. I used my networks to get my samples analysed and I was able to publish. Because of that, I was promoted and my career grew. I have built connections and network everywhere I have been and it has contributed to my achievements.
You have held numerous leadership positions in your life. What would you say is your leadership style?
That is a difficult one. You cannot describe yourself. Maybe ask those at MMU to tell you. (Laughs)
Anyway, I work through empowering others. I involve everyone, engage everyone, and listen to everyone. Ask Dr. Mary Mugo what type of leadership that is. But in all that, you have to assess the feedback and advice because you are ultimately the one who makes the decision.
(When I got back to campus, I posed this question to various colleagues and the responses were unwaveringly positive. He is described as a man who does not need to show off, a man who is levelheaded and a man who guides and gives others a chance. He seems to combine transformational and coach-style leadership).
NRF Vision references a competitive knowledge economy. What does that actually mean?
The knowledge driven economy terminology is borrowed from the Asian Tigers, which are Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. These countries have steadily grown their economies by creating a competitive edge in innovation and technology and it is because they are knowledge driven. We are trying to borrow from them because we are primarily a natural resource driven economy and an agricultural economy.
To avoid most of the problems we face, we need to become a knowledge economy. That is what was envisioned when the STI Act led to the establishment of NACOSTI, KENIA, NRF. We are conjoined because of the Act and together we regulate, research and innovation, and commercialize the innovations. With a knowledge economy, we can produce graduates who create wealth and employment opportunities.
Is the Kenyan education model able to equip students for that?
Kenya is among the best (in teaching) in the world. Everything is excellent. It is just the practical aspects that are slightly lacking. Courses that require practical’s, labs and attachments need to be improved because the job market insists on demonstration, not just understanding of the concepts. The issue is not the education model but underfunding of the education system, especially practical learning facilities. Our education system has never failed us. It is only strained now because student populations have increased about hundred fold. The facilities must be commensurate with the number of students being trained. MMU is better placed in this area because we limit the number of students in each programme, especially in Engineering.
Yes, universities in Kenya are definitely underfunded. But that is not unique to universities. Is NRF funding equal to the 2% GDP envisioned in the Act?
There has been a trend of reduced funding over the years but we are making a case for it and the current leadership is pro-science so we might get there. Currently, we receive less than 1% from Government but they give a seed fund and from our networking, partnership and funding from the private sector, we are able to realise our targets.
Does the demand for the existing funds equal the supply?
We have outstanding deals which have not been supported and we are actually negotiating to fund them. Once the Exchequer increases the kitty, we will disburse more funds but for now, we are doing it on a need by need basis.
How much of that goes to university research?
Over 80% of the funds go to universities. We also fund multi-institutional research which involve universities and other organisations e.g. agencies, hospitals etc.
You are a noteworthy researcher in your own right. What does this appointment mean for your own research work?
I am on leave of absence from MMU but my research is ongoing. I have to keep supervising students, for example, but I also have to focus on my core mandate of leadership and resource mobilization for NRF. I am still very much involved in the research ecosystem. I’ll do research but I am now not limited to just my focus area; I have to oversee all the areas e.g. if a research consortium for medicine or engineering is created, I will participate in that by virtue of my position.
Prior to your appointment, you spearheaded a partnership between MMU and KNRA whereby the two institutions were to carry out radiation protection and safety literacy campaigns, joint research, and capacity building on the safe use of radioactive materials. Will the partnership continue in your absence?
That is a good question (he is clearly excited). The answer is yes because the partnership is among institutions, not individual.
This is an important area because in Kenya, the use of radiation is increasing. Cancer cases are on the rise and facilities are coming up to treat it but the trained manpower is lacking. Cancer treatment involves the use of radio isotopes which produce ionizing radiation to target specific cancer cells. If introduced to the general public, it can be very harmful. That spent emitting source is what is heavily guarded. It is stored at the Central Radioactive Waste Processing Facility (CRWPF), located in Oloolua. The country doesn’t have capacity in the use and management of these emitting radioactive sources and in Africa at large, this training is only available in Ghana.
I want MMU to offers the course so it is quality driven and the Radiation Safety Officers (RSOs), medical physicists and others are well trained. By the time I was leaving, the partnership agreement had been signed. MMU will the national training centre and the training destination for all of Eastern Africa. It will offer a Postgraduate Education course in Radiation Protection and the safety of radiation sources. It is a 5-month course sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the first intake is going to be in October next year, 2023. Training will take place at MMU and practical at the Oloolua facility, which is also a National Chemical Biological, Radioactive Nuclear (CBRN) Reference Centre. The signing gave impetus and the partnership just needs to be executed. It is not really about me. If there is goodwill, it will proceed without a problem.
I mention his great contribution to building capacity and facilities in the country and how that will help reduce the shock for those coming back from first world countries. His response is, “When former President the late Hon. Kibaki finished his term, people thought he had finished everything but when Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta came there was still much to be done. You cannot exhaust everything as one man.” I listen to him and marvel at how incredibly unpretentiousness he is.
Do you have any regrets in life?
Not really. Maybe just that I was being convinced to stay in the US but I resisted. It can be a plus or negative depending on how you look at it but it was definitely a struggle, a shock, getting back home and not having the same facilities as those I left behind. My only regret is leaving behind the research infrastructure but I still had the network and my samples could still be tested and I could publish. Other than that, there is not much to belabor about regrets because I managed them.
Is there anything that you always said you would do if you ever became a CEO that you are now keen to actualise?
I definitely want to reduce the bureaucracies found in most public service. Most of them are superficial and if you read the approved policies you will see that a majority of the bottlenecks should not be there. People just make them up.
I also want NRF to be understood by the general public and participate in nation building. We need to improve the publicity of this place. That is key for me.
What is the most crucial lesson you have learnt in life?
I am still learning. The world is large and always changing and opportunities to serve comes with more responsibilities so I am in a learning process, especially now that I am dealing with more people. At lower levels, I faced no major challenge, except maybe not winning a grant after putting in so much effort. But I learnt, I was mentored, and I did better the next time.
What is the greatest advice ever given to you?
That I have to be inquisitive and before I ask, I should listen. I know it sounds basic but it has helped me in life even though it contradicts the scientific approach of questioning everything before you accept it. It helped me realise that if I bring that scientific approach to my work on a daily business, I will rub people the wrong way.
Given all the responsibilities on your shoulders, how do you maintain work-life balance?
The working hours are known but you almost don’t control your work plan. I have to priories what is urgent, long term, short term etc. I prioritise depending on deliverables. Aside from that, I delegate and facilitate others and collectively, we are able to achieve our goals. I have clear delegation of authority so what comes to me is refined and I can make a decision based on that.
Has your life turned out as you planned? Are you living the dream?
Partly, yes. This is a good opportunity. Many would like to be where I am so I am grateful. The only difficult aspect is that when I became CEO I had to relinquish certain things. I had a lot of freedom in academia and that is gone. I am now a state officer for the Government of Kenya. I am answerable to the Board and the President. Our operations must help deliver the mandate of the government. I miss my people in our small MMU community. I am now very recognizable and it has limited my privacy but everything else is good.