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Launching Gearbox, A Kenyan Makerspace

Gearbox: Kenya's Makerspace for tinkerers and makers of things

Gearbox: Kenya’s Makerspace for tinkerers and makers of things

We’ve been talking (and talking, and talking) about a rapid prototyping space here in Nairobi for ages. Without the resources to do it, the community got things started on their own with the iHub Robotics Group, who does all kinds of cool meetings; from training newbies like me and my daughters on Arduino and Raspberry Pi, to events where they showcase locally made solar tracking systems and help to run kids hacker camps.

This week we’re announcing Gearbox – our makerspace in Nairobi.

What is a Makerspace?

A makerspace (or hackerspace) is where a community of people who like to make physical products, who enjoy tinkering, and who design everything from electronics gadgets to plastic toys meet and work. To us, it’s a place where the worlds of high-tech software geeks meet jua kali artisans. This is why our space covers to flavors; what we call “Gearbox: Light” (electronics and plastics) and “Gearbox: Heavy” (wood and metal). Keep in mind, this isn’t a manufacturing facility for many items, instead it’s a place where you rapidly prototype out your idea to see if it will work – once you figure it out, then you have to find another facility for real production.

This is a place that is very community oriented, where there are advanced users and experienced fabricators around who are part of the community as well. It’s not enough just to be a member, but you also must give back by helping the newbies and running a few trainings to get people up to speed on the equipment.

Gearbox: Heavy
This is where we have heavy duty equipment, the metal working and wood working equipment and tools that allow you to build and prototype large things. Our friends at Re:Char built a “shop in a box” – basically a container with a bunch of amazing equipment. They’ve donated that to the iHub, and we’re finding a home for it now, so that everyone in our community can start building big things.

re:char factory is 20' container

Examples of the equipment:

  • CNC table w/ backup supplies
  • Diesel Generator
  • Welding equipment
  • Band saw, full + handheld
  • Compressor, full + portable
  • Power supply scrubber
  • Oxyacetylene torches
  • Saws, table + chop
  • Soldering iron
  • Drill press, hand drill, corded + cordless
  • Grinders
  • Forge

Gearbox: Light
When we were building out the BRCK, we found that we needed a polished space where we had access to some of the tools and equipment needed for higher-level electronics, while at the same time a place where we could mill out, or 3d print, early versions of the case. We soon found out that there were others creating robots, drones, TV devices and point of sale systems that also needed a place to do rapid testing of their ideas, but who didn’t have the tools themselves.

Solar Kits at Maker Faire Africa in Kenya

Our plan is to have this part of the electronics and plastics part of Gearbox on the 2nd floor of the iHub building. Where you’ll be able to come in and use a 3D printer, laser cutter, smaller CNC machines and soldering equipment. Again, the idea that there are experts around who you can talk to about the right materials, or a more efficient process for building your gadget, is here.

What we need

  • Makers – you want to build something, here’s your chance. Jump on the website and register for a membership, come in and build stuff.
  • Experts – if you’re beyond novice, have built products, please get in touch. We need you to help train and build up the next generation of makers.
  • Interns – a number of you have already been in touch, but we’re looking for 2-4 paid interns who will help manage the space and build the community.

On capital
It costs some money to get started with Gearbox, and a lot of groups are stepping up to help, and we could use some more. The partners for Gearbox are Sanergy, Ushahidi, BRCK, Knowable and Mobius Motors, and we’re looking for more. Academic partners are MIT thus far, and we’d like to get a few more signed up here too. If your company needs access to this kind of equipment from time-to-time, get in touch.

Right now we could use about $50,000 for some equipment purchases, as it’s expensive to buy and ship some items to Kenya. If you can help on that, please get in touch.

Long-term we have other plans for keeping Gearbox sustainable in 3 ways:

  1. Membership: There will be monthly membership fees, the rates are still being determined, but it will be affordable.
  2. Gearshop: There will be a store, where you can buy the small components and resources you need, as well as a place where we sell on consignment, things made by the community.
  3. Partners: Corporate partners who want to be a part of this community can do take part showcasing their products and doing events.

I’ve said for a long time that I think we in Africa have an advantage in making things. It’s a culture that’s never been lost, and we’re used to improvising, adapting and overcoming challenges that come our way. This is our first foray into that meeting of the worlds between high-tech and low-tech making, and I’ve not been this excited about something for a long time.

Join us!

Crowdfunding and Seed Funding in African Tech

I’ve written a couple of times about the lack of seed funding in Africa, and how to find the entrepreneurs to fund if you did have seed capital. We’re starting to see a few angel investors like Sean Murphy of Chembe Ventures making their way around the continent, but they are not nearly enough to fulfill the capacity of ideas and individuals who need startup capital.


Just this week the CrowdFunding South Africa site was launched (look for them at SXSW this week in Austin), working off the theory that, “South Africa cannot compete in the global online sector if it isn’t funding start-ups at the beginning stage.” Their plan is to do this by getting:

“1000 people get together investing R1,000+ each by pooling the money into the Crowdfund.”

Seed funding is risky, and the idea of Crowdfund is to distribute that risk over a number of people thereby reducing it for everyone. Their goal is to invest 50,000-100,000 Rand in 10-20 “excellent ideas”, and also provide legal advice and contracts, designers, specialized developers, bandwidth, hosting, office space and running costs, mentorship and time saved.

This idea is similar to what Ben White at VC4Africa is thinking about, basically a “Kiva on steroids” as Bill Zimmerman puts it. A way for you to invest in people and projects with larger sums of money and greater risk and returns than on the microfinance investing sites.

Finding the Real Tech Entrepreneurs

Both the Crowdfund and VC4Africa initiatives are excellent steps in the right direction, as they both provide platforms that allow less-knowledgeable investors (of tech in Africa), and deeply involved African tech investors alike, to get involved without too much risk at one time. There remains one issue to be solved though, and that is finding the entrepreneurs to invest in.

Any VC worth their salt will tell you that they invest in the people behind good ideas, not just the product/service that the entrepreneur is trying to create. So, how do you find these individuals? It’s generally through your network, people you trust, that serve as a filter to guide you towards the promising ones. That’s the same in Africa as it is anywhere else, yet here in Africa, there are fewer of these trusted intermediaries who act as filters (especially for international capital), than there are in the US or Europe.

In a meeting this last week of the people behind Limbe Labs (Cameroon), Appfrica Labs (Uganda), the iHub and the iLAB (Kenya) we discussed how these spaces could act as that type of a filter for investors and funds. Each of us sees more young tech entrepreneurs every day, and sees these individuals consistently, than most any other single person could by themselves.

Could these labs, which are now showing up all over Africa, be a way for entrepreneurs to make themselves known, show their stuff, then be introduced to the funds and investors with a greater level of confidence than normal?

Social Entrepreneurs and SoCap ’09

Last year, after Pop!Tech where I was labeled a Social Entrepreneur Fellow, I wrote a post for them asking, “if every African entrepreneur is a social entrepreneur?” This questions stems from my lack of clarity on what defines a “social entrepreneur” in the first place.

SoCap 09I just pulled into San Francisco for the second annual Social Capital Markets conference (SoCap). Kevin Jones, the convener of the conference calls this, “The market at the intersection of money and meeting.” So here, Social Capital is supposedly about putting money behind social entrepreneurs.

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

Rob Salkowitz says, “Every entrepreneur who creates employment & opportunity where it’s needed is a social entrepreneur.” That’s broad, but so is the terminology we’re starting with.

Wikipedia defines it as, “A social entrepreneur is someone who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change.”

What’s your definition?

Africa at DEMO ’08

I’ve been sitting on this little nugget of information for the last month, but am happy to finally announce that I’ll be going to the DEMO ’08 conference in January. DEMO is the leading conference for new technologies to launch. It’s generally packed with a ton of VC’s, startups and some really interesting people. DEMO is one of the very best conferences in the tech space and one that I’ve always wanted to attend.

DEMO 2008

“DEMO is the premier launch venue for new products, technologies and companies. For more than 16 years, DEMO has established a reputation for identifying and presenting to an elite audience the products most likely to have a significant impact on the marketplace and market trends in the coming year. “

Africa: The Untapped Continent
I was initially approached because of my writing on AfriGadget and WhiteAfrican – where I try to cover the spectrum of low-tech to high-tech innovation happening in Africa. Juliana (aka: Afromusing), another AfriGadget editor and also an editor of Global Voices, will be on the panel as well. [Update: Mike Stopforth will be there to represent some of the views from the South African community as well – which I’m thrilled to hear!]

What they want us to discuss is the future. Specifically, this audience is highly interested in investment, so we will be discussing how Africa is a virtually untapped region, areas of growth, and we’ll be filling them in on companies and ideas that they had no idea existed.

My goal, as many long-time readers will expect, is to get the audience to understand that there are huge opportunities in Africa. This runs the gamut – from low-tech innovations that can be scaled for distribution globally, to high-tech mobile phone services that grab millions of consumers in Africa.

Needless to say, I’m really excited about this. It puts me right in front of an audience who have the resources necessary to make the ideas that I talk about everyday into reality. These are the people who can help African companies grow and become players on the world stage.

If you want to see more of what types of things go on at DEMO, check out their past DEMO videos.

Farmers in Kenya Using a Mobile Information Exchange

[Cross posted on Pambazuka.org]

Rural farmers in central Kenya have been piloting a project, called DrumNet, that provides marketing, financial services and information to them using their mobile phones. The project’s premise is that information on the market is one of the key elements that keeps farmers from getting the full market value for their products. This lack of information also keeps the farmers in a disadvantageous financial position, so that it is difficult to get the financing and resources they need to grow their business.

DrumNet in Western KenyaDrumNet is currently moving from the pilot project in central Kenya to a beta phase project in western Kenya. The pilot phase was research on whether or not the concept of providing marketing, finance and information with the aid of cell phones was feasible. It was concluded that it was and they are now moving into a beta phase. For this next phase DrumNet has around 250 participating farmers planting around 150 acres of sunflower. They have not completed a full cycle with the current model, but since sunflower growing season is only 3 – 4 months they should see results fairly quickly.

DrumNet LogoDrumNet is part of Pride Africa, a US-based organization that has successfully implemented micro-enterprise urban loans for short-term capital in East and Southern Africa. With projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Malawi, Pride Africa has proven to be an economic development group that works. They work to create products that have a financial impact on the community and which can be taken over and run privately after they have been setup.

How it Works
The application that is being written, is Java with a Postgres database utilizing a commercial SMS gateway out of South Africa. DrumNet is trying to write it so that it is extremely simple to use. From the farmers perspective they are initiating an SMS to them where they ask a question looking for a simple answer. Many of the SMS’s only require a Yes | No | or Call response, probably a 1, 2, or 3. Some are more complex, like “How many acres has your group planted?”.

DrumNet MobileAnother main goal of the system is to create a cashless system that allows DrumNet to track where inputs are going, who is getting inputs and how much produce is expected at the end of the growing season. This will hopefully cut down on side selling, selling of bad fertilizers and seeds, etc. The farmer will receive a unique e-token on their phone. When they go into the stockist they give the stockist the e-token and s/he sends it into the DrumNet system. The DrumNet system immediately affects payment to the stockist. The DrumNet system in turns sends a confirmation SMS to the farmer making sure that the he did indeed pick up the inputs.

They are also trying to create a system so that when the transporter picks up the graded harvest at the end of the growing season, the transporter can SMS in the amount picked up. This will kick off a 50% payment as the transporter is climbing into his lorry. The DrumNet system will notify the farmer, and the bank that they are using, Equity Bank, will also notify the farmer that a certain size deposit has been deposited.

Further Benefits
Another main goal is to gather data about the reliability of all the actors in the chain. This data is primarily for the benefit of the farmer, as we can provide a type of credit rating. e.g. This farmer has worked with DrumNet for 2 years, and has very successfully planted and sold his sunflower every season. The participating bank(s) can then use that information to lower interest rates on their loans, offer different services like crop insurance, health care, education loans.

This last part is extremely useful and could be used as the foundation for a reputation system for mobile banking in Africa. The potential there is that credit, and debt, can now be handed out at the micro-level to almost anyone. The banks who take an early role in this process, and those who are willing to venture into untested new territory with technology stand to gain a lot if they can create this mobile payments system for Africa.

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