The Founding of the Royal Technical College


By Prof. Bethwell A. Ogot

On September 14, 1951, Sir Phillip Mitchell signed the Charter of the Royal Technical College of East Africa to be built in Nairobi. The object was to establish a technical college to provide facilities for vocational training in main branches that included engineering, commerce and accountancy, agricultural, medical and veterinary laboratory science, industry, domestic science, arts and crafts, sanitary science and pharmacy, for the sound economic development of East African Territories.

A grant of 150 thousand Sterling Pounds was made under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act. Also, a grant of free land was made by the Kenya Government. Hostels for the College were built on lower slopes of Hospital Hill where one site was acquired compulsorily at a cost of 11 thousand Sterling Pounds. The College was to grow on a total of some 54 acres in the heart of Nairobi. Another grant of 410 thousand Sterling Pounds was given in October 1952, which was to cover the cost of the main building which was completed in 1955.

On October 24, 1956, Princess Margaret formally opened the Royal Technical College of East Africa in Nairobi. She recalled that it was her father, King George VI, who gave the Royal Technical College its title. The fine modern building was well worth the inspiration and hard work which had been devoted to the College. She went on (East African Standard, October 25, 1956):

“In territories such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, whose activities — whether agricultural, commercial or industrial are increasing so rapidly, it is easy to see the importance of a college of this nature, for it must be the training ground of your future leaders. By this means of training your own professional men and women, you will be able to find the skill and knowledge needed for your Country’s development. A splendid start has been made here by providing these facilities in a College which, I have no doubt, in the years will steadily expand.

I would like here to say how much I hope that the Governing Council and the academic staff will ensure that the education which is offered to the students will be made as broad as possible, and will avoid too close a concentration on purely technical subjects. As I see it, they have a two-fold task. It is, first, to provide men and women trained in specialised and extremely practical fields. Secondly, and I am sure that this is more important, it is to send out into the world people with wide interests, who have by their association with their fellow students been firmly set on the road leading to wise citizenship.

A great part in this is played by corporate college life — the working and playing together, and the sharing of many activities — all of which lay the foundation stones of life-long friendships and respect for the viewpoint of others. It is certain that the development of this country is going to need not only professional skill but also good manners and the ability to live in harmony with one’s fellow men.”

The Princess said there was already a happy augury for the future in the incorporation of the Gandhi Memorial Academy within the College. The vision and generous attitude which led to this step were, she considered, of even more significance than the gift of money which accompanied it. For it meant the rejection of “separation” and an endorsement of the growing unity of the different sections of the community.

Kenya now had a University Institution symbolised by its “Fountain of Knowledge” designed by Frank Foit, a Czech Sculptor. The new University was not only for expatriates but for all citizens of Kenya, irrespective of their colour, class or creed. This was in a country where educational institutions were still, in the 1950s, racially segregated. But, as was implied in the well thought out speech by the Princess, those who share college life were, in future, likely to find it easy to work together to build a united Kenya.

The College was established during the Cold War, when the West, led by the United States, and the socialist countries led by Russia were competing for the minds of Africans. A university institution provided an excellent platform for fighting intellectual “cold wars.” The US decided to support the British effort at the college by building “the American Wing”, which was to accommodate the Faculty of Engineering. Also, through an agreement between Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and the Royal Technical College, 68 thousand Sterling Pounds was provided for equipment necessary for advanced undergraduate teaching and research, and for carrying out research. Another sum of 55 thousand Sterling Pounds was earmarked for an additional wing, expanding the laboratories by 17 thousand square feet.

The College received a 265 thousand Sterling Pounds grant from the United States Agency for International Development for the expansion of its Faculty of Veterinary Science. Agreements for the new grant were signed in May 1963 by the acting USAID representative in Kenya, R. W. Powers, and the acting Chairman of the Royal College Council, B. M. Gecaga.

The Veterinary Faculty, which was transferred from Makerere College in 1962, had a large expansion programme. From a previous grant of 75 thousand Sterling Pounds, 40 thousand Sterling Pounds had already been used for the erection of a new administrative block for the Clinical School at Kabete, which was completed in May 1963. Apart from American help, capital for the Veterinary School had been received from the Kenya and British Governments, the Freedom from Hunger Campaign and the Rockefeller Foundation. Of the new USAID grant, 90 thousand Sterling Pounds was reserved for the appointment of American Veterinary Scientists to the University of East Africa, and about 175 thousand Sterling Pounds towards building a new Pathology and Microbiology block to complete the Para-clinical School. Together with the Clinical School at Kabete and the Pre-clinical School built at Chiromo with a gift from the Rockefeller Foundation, these buildings provided accommodation for the best equipped Veterinary Faculty concentrating on tropical diseases in Africa.

Image: Official opening of the Royal Technical College of East Africa by Princess Margaret – 1956

About the Author: Professor Bethwell A. Ogot is Emeritus Professor of History at Maseno University and held the UNESCO Chair for Higher Education in Africa. He has also taught at the University of Nairobi where he was the first Deputy Vice-Chancellor and also founded the Institute of Development Studies and the Institute of African Studies.

This article is based on an excerpt from the book, Bethwell .A. Ogot and Madara Ogot, History of Nairobi: 1899-2012: From a Railway Camp and Supply Depot to a World-Class African Metroplis Kisumu: Anyange Press, 2020.