The Nairobi Kids (Hardware) Hacker Camp

The Kids Hacker Camp at the iHub in KenyaFor the last 2 years I’ve wanted to do a camp where we get a bunch of kids together for a fun week of computers and hardware. It finally is happening, this week we have 40 boys and girls, ages 10-16 and from all demographics and types of schools at the iHub. One of them is my daughter, who kept bouncing around excited about it over the weekend, chomping at the bit to get started.

(more info here on the iHub blog)

Nairobi's Kids Hacker Camp at the iHub

What gives me warm fuzzies about this is two-fold. First, acknowledgment that my colleague Jessica Colaco is as amazing as ever, pulling this whole thing together in the last few weeks with IBM and the help of a dozen university-level hardware hackers from the robotics club at the iHub. Second, knowing that it’s taken us a while to really engage kids with tech, and that we’re finally doing it.

I was only able to spend time there intermittently thus far, and I saw the kids get intro’d to robotics (servos and motors) by a guy named Peter, who had built his own remote controlled transforming car. Everything was built by hand, nothing off the shelf, even the remote control itself. Here’s a short video of it closing back up.

A handmade, transforming remote controlled car – Kids Hacker Camp Nairobi from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.


They’ve spent a couple days on breadboards, learning how transistors and diodes work using LED lights. Now they’re onto sensors and micro-controllers (Arduino), and they’re making weather stations as their final project.

The kids are split up into groups of 5-6 kids, with two adults per group, that way each kid gets a lot of time hands-on with the equipment and can ask plenty of questions.


Learning How Power Flows – Nairobi Kids Hacker Camp from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

Fab Factories: Hardware Manufacturing in Africa

Across Africa there is a vibrant culture of people creating things. Hardware products. It’s rarely glamorous as our inventors and micro-entrepreneurs innovate on products due to necessity – there simply aren’t enough jobs and they need to feed their families.

Regardless of the reasons why they do it, what this has created is a culture of innovation.

When you have a problem in Africa, there isn’t another option, you either improvise, adapt and overcome, or you die. You don’t give up, you figure out a way to make things work.

This environment has bred a generation of problem solvers: people confront immense challenges and keep at it until a solution is found. It might not always be the most beautiful solution (usually the finishing isn’t up to par), but it works and that’s what matters.

Concurrently, we’re a net importer of fabricated products from around the world. We might make some of our own software now, but we do little to nothing with hardware. How can we be the masters of our own future if we don’t do any meaningful levels of fabrication?

A while back I wrote about the need of “hardware hacking garages” in Africa, a place where the innovation and inventions that deal with things you can actually put your hands on happens. I think this is our next frontier to explore: fabrication and manufacturing.

Moving from FabLab to Fab Factory

The one place that we do do some type of fabrication, at least where we explore and invent, is the network of FabLab’s across the continent. They are very much university focused (and constrained), but they have had a great amount of innovation coming out of them as well. In Kenya, Kamau Gachigi runs the one in Nairobi, and it has been a model of both invention and innovative revenue streams to keep itself going and to bring in funds to the engineers working through it.

The FabLab is small though. What would happen if you put it on steroids and made it 10x larger? What if we were talking about a Fab Factory instead?

A Factory
A space that has all the machines needed to fabricate prototypes and manufacture pieces in at least small quantities. It would need machine tools, laser cutters, 3d printers, wood working tools and more. A place that you could rent time on the machines, rent a workshop, and get training on the machines you don’t know how to operate. Something that looks a lot like the TechShop in San Francisco, but tweaked to work in Africa.

A Warehouse
Take the Factory model, and layer on a warehouse. There are some items that we will not make on our own, namely computer chips. Having a warehouse would allow group buying to happen, where economies of scale could be reached for supplies to be brought into the country, as well as serving as a central facility for distribution of these items to the community.

A Nodal Network
Having a central “factory” and “warehouse” provides many benefits, but it’s not enough. As we know from 3 years of running Maker Faire Africa events, many of the most interesting inventions come from rural areas, mainly due to the fact that they have strong commercial upside. In this case it makes sense to take the original FabLab model and export that to the major cities around the country, making these types of capabilities much more accessible to a wider user base.

A Tech Store
Beyond building and inventing, there’s a gap where the people creating things can take them to market. Providing a space for these people to sell their products (and services), provides a bigger target for buyers, both consumer and b2b buyers to find new items. It also provides a much needed stream of income for the small-scale inventors, with the potential to put them on the map for efforts to commercialize and scale their work.

Ideas and Examples

A couple examples of things that could be built locally, while at the same time keeping the money in-country and increasing technical capabilities in the market:

  • In Kenya, the local energy company is moving to pre-paid meters for home electricity. These are simple boxes, imminently hackable, and all made in China. Why? These could be fabricated right here in Kenya, and made better, cheaper.
  • The Kenya Wildlife Service needs UAVs for tracking poachers and remote viewing of the parks. They’re currently spending large amounts of money on imported ones. We can build those here too, to the standards needed, and for a lot less.

Emeka Okafor, my organizing colleague for Maker Faire Africa, has been on this fabrication thing for years. He has even more examples of small scale manufacturing on his blog at Timbuktu Chronicles.

I imagine a place like that would get immediate use in certain markets; namely Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, though others might line up quickly as well. It certainly makes sense for the governments in these countries to invest in this future, or at the very least to incentivize this type of ownership of our own technological future.

What I’m wondering is what other models are there like this?

If building the iHub, m:lab and Ushahidi have taught me anything, it’s that getting something going is the most important thing you can do. Do something, even if small. Get traction. Get started.

The answer isn’t to wait on the government, even though we all see the argument for them being involved here. I imagine the next step is to raise some money, find a space and get a few fabrication machines in place. It will grow from there. Standby for this in Nairobi soon. It has to happen, and it will happen.

This will take money. Anyone interested in getting involved?

(On a sidenote, I’m finally getting to visit the TechShop as I’m in San Francisco this week. Very excited about this!)

Manufacturing our Future

When I was a kid of around 10 years old, I used to collect small motors and electrical components with my school friends in Nairobi. We’d find some batteries and create small rotating and whirling contraptions, dreaming of how we’d one day make a walking robot that we could sit in and control – no doubt inspired by the Star Wars AT-STs.

I’ve always enjoyed tinkering. It’s what drove my interest in telling the stories of Africa’s innovative hardware hackers in the jua kali sector, writing on AfriGadget. It’s why helping to organize and be a part of Maker Faire Africa has been so much fun for me (which I’m missing, as it’s taking place this weekend in Cairo, due to family reasons). It’s why I buy kids solar and hydraulic kits to build things with my daughters.

I’ve been buried in the software (web) side of technology for the past few years. In this space it seems like we’ve been happy with de-linking software and hardware, after all, pure internet software is easier to spread, export and get access to. I can’t shake the tinkering side though, knowing that the two sides are interlinked and that more of the bridging of the two is needed. We’re just waiting for the Moore’s Law treadmill to slow down enough for the two to sync up again.

Firefly Inspirations

Laura Walker Hudson shares a fascination with the Firefly TV series, which suffered a short-lived life spanning only half a season in 2002. It’s a space western, reminiscent of Star Wars, gritty with witty realistic characters. That’s not why I’m bringing this up though. Laura reminded me of what something that made the show more compelling, the fact that it was a merging of Western and Chinese cultures.

“…it is a future where the only two surviving superpowers, the United States and China, fused to form the central federal government, called the Alliance, resulting in the fusion of the two cultures…”

This reminded me of an article I read about the Shanzhai hacking, copying and innovating culture in China.

The contemporary shanzhai are rebellious, individualistic, underground, and self-empowered innovators. They are rebellious in the sense that the shanzhai are celebrated for their copycat products; they are the producers of the notorious knock-offs of the iPhone and so forth. They individualistic in the sense that they have a visceral dislike for the large companies; many of the shanzhai themselves used to be employees of large companies (both US and Asian) who departed because they were frustrated at the inefficiency of their former employers. They are underground in the sense that once a shanzhai “goes legit” and starts doing business through traditional retail channels, they are no longer considered to be in the fraternity of the shanzai. They are self-empowered in the sense that they are universally tiny operations, bootstrapped on minimal capital, and they run with the attitude of “if you can do it, then I can as well”.

This sounds like we’re seeing the beginnings of our sci-fi worlds becoming real. Mix this with what you see in other parts of the world with open hacking garages, like what my friend Dominic Muren (TED and PopTech Fellow) is doing with Humblefactory. We’re seeing hardware hacking spaces being set up, allowing small-time inventors to cook up new ideas on machines that they couldn’t afford by themselves. This is a trend that is growing.

Manufacturing our Future

Large technology companies drive both the diffusion of technology globally, and the costs of components. As the parts needed to make new tech “things” become commoditized, smaller manufacturers can get them at a low enough price point that they can also create their own inventions and sell them profitably. This is where the Shanzhai story becomes so compelling. We’re able to create more customized, and more innovative products, because they’re not created for a generalized mass market.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about small factories taking root in Africa. Most of them don’t have much, or anything, to do with technology creation. However, the story does point out the emergence of more manufacturing happening on the continent.

It makes me wonder what would happen if we had our own jua kali industry working on higher tech products, like their Shanzhai counterparts in China. What types of innovative technology (hardware and software) would come from Africa that differs for the local context?

I won’t go into a great amount of detail, on what I’ve written before around the idea of “Hardware Hacking Garages: hardware and accessories innovation” in Africa. I think we need it, as it could help kickstart this next phase of localized R&D, prototyping and ultimately small-scale manufacturing that we need on the continent.

If we can’t provide a technology manufacturing base of our own in Africa, I’m worried that we’ll forfeit our future in the space. We might not reach the scale of Asia, but we need to have the competency and the capacity to do some of it locally.

Another way of thinking about this is that the non-traditional businesses in Africa are well positioned to provide a distributed manufacturing base already. Think of it as horizontal scale instead of the vertical scaling you see in massive Asian factories. If there were a way to provide logistical, communications and market efficiencies to that loose and distributed network, then we might find that the foundation is already set.

Further Reads and Links

The Space Hackers are Coming! [small PDF]
The Hackaday blog
Fundibots – Ugandan-based robot building and training
The hardware hacker manifesto

Hardware Hacking Garages: hardware and accessories innovation

As many of you know, I’m the founder of the AfriGadget blog, and one of the organizers for Maker Faire Africa, which happened in Ghana last year and Kenya this year. Though I pretty much only build software apps and services, I’ve got a soft spot for hardware hacking. Last week I put an idea into the website for this month’s Open Innovation Africa Summit taking place upcountry in Kenya, put on by Nokia, infoDev and Capgemini. This is that idea.

I’m enthralled by software, apps and platforms. It’s the low hanging fruit with very few barriers to entry, it’s the place where a great deal of innovation is happening and where money is being made. However, when we look at innovation in Africa, we often overlook the hardware – yes, the handsets, but also the other devices and accessories that local engineers (trained/untrained) can get their hands dirty with. Sometimes this is pure fabrication, other times it’s hacking existing products, many times it’s a mixture of both.

We’re already seeing stories of the way guys are doing everything from creating their own vehicle security systems, home security systems, distance-triggered food preparation and even fish catching alerts. That’s with no support at all. What happens when you provide a space to make it faster, better and possibly an avenue to manufacturers and funders?

[Image above: a porridge making machine by a Malawian inventor, triggered by an SMS.]

Maker: Simon Kimani from Butterfly Works on Vimeo.

[Video above: Kenyan inventor creates an “SMS House Automation System” where you can give a command via the phone to  perform tasks, including turning on/off the TV, Lights.]

Hardware Hacking Garage
Ever since we put up the iHub (Nairobi’s Innovation Hub) this year, I’ve been thinking a lot more about a physical space as its own platform. We deal with the software side of the web and mobile innovation. We don’t have a parallel space for doing the same with hardware. I’m talking about a tinkering, micro-fabrication and engineering environment. This would require some space, basic tools and a few specialized electronics and computers to make it work.

Here are just a few areas (If you have any more ideas, put them in the comments and I’ll add them below):

  • Power hacks = using dynamos, solar, hydro and other  ideas to hack new power systems that work off the grid and in remote rural regions (made by the people who live there).
  • SD cards = digital storage. In fact, provide these with content  already on them, including books (libraries), encyclopedias, etc.
  • Arduino Boards = an open-source physical computing platform based on a simple input/output board and a development environment that implements the Wiring language.
  • DIY Mesh Networks = Adjusting and improving upon ideas like the Village Telco project
  • [From Solomon King] – If you’re to explore physical computing, you might need a wide array of sensors for environment management, we’re talking GPS, tilt swtiches, digital gyros, sonar, etc. This stuff is pretty expensive so having a  space to play with them (on-site) would be nice.

Physical Space
It’s important that the Hardware Hacking Garage be setup as a centralized resource for the inventor community. Memberships should be available to any inventor, or student, upon application and approval. Many times access to tools and a workshop is all that enterprising inventors, micro-entrepreneurs, and youth, need to create their first innovative project.

For a sustainable approach, this Hardware Hacking Garage could have a store attached, which can serve as a sales and marketing outlet for the devices, inventions and solutions created by the community.

This is an idea that effects everyone across Africa, a space like this is accessible and usable by young and experienced, rural and urban inventors and entrepreneurs. As much as we’d like to pretend that the ideas coming from outside of Africa will be picked up and used, the truth is that the ideas need to come from Africans for themselves and their community. An open Hacking Garage platform is where real hardware innovation for Africa will come from.

Kazang: A Truly Mobile Prepaid Service Terminal for Africa

Psitek is a company that deeply understands the African market, I’m convinced that this is due to them having all of their work done on the continent. The last time I wrote about them was after I came across the nearly indestructible Streetwise mobile-accessible computer for children.

As Hannes notes:

“They are the inventors of that trusted voice access device that anyone that ever travelled to Africa would know about: the Adondo. Designed for Africa with anti-insect electronics, high temperature and humidity tolerance, their devices still ship with car-battery ready clamps.”

The Kazang service and terminal

Kazang - prepaid service terminals for Africa

This time it’s about Kazang, a prepaid terminal for merchants selling mobile phone services, such as prepaid airtime, paying of electricity bills or insurance. The service is a year and a half old now, and boasts nearly 5,000 vendors ranging from South Africa to Kenya to Zambia.

Kazang Terminal - Timpa

The newest device, the Timpa, comes with all of the necessary requirements for the challenges that a merchant running a business in a rural (or urban) setting in Africa would need. It has a built-in printer and rechargeable battery which makes it fully mobile, uses GPRS technology to communicate with the Content Ready (back-end) server (just plug in a data SIM card), and a large LCD with backlighting. They have also built in fail-safes for when the GPRS connection drops, or the electricity goes out, so that the merchant doesn’t get charged for a voucher that they didn’t receive.

Psitek claims that clearing $1000/month is a reasonable to expect by vendors, which would bring home about $80/month of profit (8% margin). This alone makes it a fairly good proposition for a lot of merchants, meaning they can add a Kazang terminal to their shop as an added draw for more customers and it acts as to supplement their other revenue streams.

Not written about much relative to their impact, Psitek is one of those tech firms offering devices that run behind the scenes of many businesses in the southern part of Africa.

Negroponte on the New (lowercase): olpc

Nicholas Negroponte comes up on stage at TED and tells us that, due to the OLPC, there’s a whole new product line: Netbooks. However, they copied all the wrong things. Next thing you know there are a couple being thrown around the stage, and he’s asking us how well a netbook would stand up to that, or being submerged in water, or being sent to Africa…

My question is about how well an OLPC works when you just open it up…? :)

“Commercial markets will do anything they can to stop you, even when you’re non-profit, even if you’re a humanitarian organization.”

Now we want to build something that everybody copies. Go from the OLPC to the olpc (lowercase). That’s what’s going to happen over the next 3 years. Open source hardware: where you publish all the specs and all the designs so that anyone can copy it.

In a side conversation with Ethan Zuckerman here, this is what they should have done 3 years ago, and it would have saved them a lot of heartache.

Cameron Sinclair adds via Twitter, “OLPC to be open sourced. email with ideas about olpc. I suggest adding SketchUp and making it o.l.p.innovator”