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!

Fundi Bots: Robotics Lab, School Clubs and Camps

Hardware hacking is what Solomon King does in Uganda, he already makes his own robots, now he’s taking that idea a little further. He’s taking it to kids, trying to get robotics into the hands of Ugandan youth through his Fundi Bots project. (Fundi is the word for technician).

Their plan comes in three parts: a lab, school robotics clubs and robotics camps.

That first item is important, a lab. A central place where the members of Fundi Bots can come in and find the relatively expensive tools, software and computers needed to make the robots and learn together. It gives a hub to their spokes of activity taking place in the schools throughout the year, a much needed “club house” for the community.

This idea of hardware hacking garages is something I’ve spoken about before:

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.

Interestingly, the founder of Fundi Bots is from the software side, he’s the CEO of his own web services company Node Six, and a well-respected member of that community. I find it interesting that a lot of times, the people who get into the robotics side come from a software background.

What I find even more encouraging is that Solomon and his colleagues in this enterprise, Betty Kituyi and Gasper Obua, are doing this on their own. They aren’t waiting for investment, grants or some other form of support to get started. Instead, they’re creating robots, making inroads into schools and figuring it out as they go. Too many times people sit on a good idea and make excuses for why they’re not doing something about it. That’s not the case here.

Finally, if you’re interested in Fundi Bots, I do know that they could use some support. It might be getting them into schools, or connections with robotic parts manufacturers or resellers.

Other Hardware Hacking News

Makeshift Magazine

Put together by Steve Daniels, Myles Estey and Niti Bhan, Makeshift is a new quarterly magazine and journal about maker culture from far parts of the world. The first publication will be themed “Re-culture: Reuse, repair, and recycle at the grassroots,” featuring stories such as everyday product hacks in Kenya, industrial fabric recycling in India, improvised tools in Myanmar, recycled art in Colombia, and adaptive reuse of industrial sites in the United States. Support their Kickstarter campaign.

Maker Faire Africa 2011: Egypt

Also happening later this year is Maker Faire Africa, in Egypt. It’s a mashpit of hardware hackers, just like Solomon, who are creating new inventions and making new products. This is the third Maker Faire Africa, following Ghana and Kenya, and will bring a unique northern Africa flavor to the event.

Maker Faire: Africa

Maker Faire Africa (MFA) is a new event celebrating the innovation, ingenuity and invention within Africa – happening August 13-15 of this year in Accra, Ghana.

Maker Faire Africa in Ghana

We came at this event from a specific angle – we mixed the types of individuals who show up on AfriGadget and Timbuktu Chronicles, and the ethos of the greater MAKE community, all with the blessings of the good folks at Maker Faire. The dates were chosen to coincide with Amy Smith’s and MIT’s International Development and Design Summit (IDDS), which will run for 3 weeks before MFA, also in Ghana.

As Emeka puts it:

The aim of a Maker Faire-like event is to create a space on the continent where Afrigadget-type innovations, inventions and initiatives can be sought, identified, brought to life, supported, amplified, propagated, etc. Maker Faire Africa asks the question, “What happens when you put the drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali with those from Ghana and Kenya, and add resources to the mix?”

How You can Support MFA

get a Maker Faire Africa badge!First off, help spread the word! Let people know where and when it will be. Share the link to the site, grab a badge, blog it.

Second, help us find sponsors. If you know an organization or individual who would like to support this amazing event, put us in touch with them. It could be monetary, or it could be donating some cool gadgets, gear, tools or devices for people to hack on while there. (example idea: we’d love to get some LEGO Mindstorm kits for the local high schools).

Third, come. If you have the time and ability, we’d love to have you, your ideas and your gadgets at MFA.

The Team

In my role as founder of AfriGadget, I’m part of the organizing team to put together Maker Faire Africa, joined by my an excellent group of people including:

Want to get involved yourself? Get in touch!

Help Prototype the “Ultimate” Activist Messaging Tool

Ken Banks is the creator of FrontlineSMS, which is used in Ushahidi as a way to allow local phone numbers to be used for incoming messages. There’s a dependency that I’m not a big fan of though – you have to know how to download it, setup and activate it on your computer. That’s a huge barrier to entry.

As Ken just posted, we were roommates at last months Pop!Tech Fellows program. We’ve known each other for years, but this gave us a chance to talk at length around certain ideas that had been frittering about in the back of our heads. One such idea was how we could get rid of the need to own a computer to run FrontlineSMS (and from my perspective, sync with Ushahidi).

An independent mobile hub

a Micro-SD card and USB GSM deviceIf you have someone trying to run an operation in a developing nation, you don’t always have the luxury of having a computer and/or an internet connection. What if you could run this whole system locally from a microSD card, slotted into the side of a USB GSM modem?

“The software, drivers, configuration files and databases could all be held locally on the same device, and seamlessly connect with the GSM network through the ‘built-in’ modem. This would mean the user wouldn’t need to own a computer to use it, and it would allow them to temporarily turn any machine into a messaging hub by plugging the hybrid device into any computer – running Windows, Mac OSX or Linux – in an internet cafe or elsewhere.”

Doing this would effectively remove the computer (the largest expense) from the system entirely.

That’s a very powerful idea. By taking away something, you make it more powerful and more useful to the user. It means a lot for those who are trying to remain under the radar and it means they could do their messaging effectively, and with a lot less knowledge of the system, than is currently needed.

Building a prototype

Both Ken and I would like to hack a prototype of this together, so if there’s anyone interested in helping us do this, please let us know. If there are any MAKE fans out there, this might be right up your alley. We’ll both be in Nairobi from Dec 7-12, so if anyone there is game we’d love to do it then. This can also be done remotely too, so anyone want to work on getting FrontlineSMS native to a device such as this?

[Note: this type of device isn’t just useful for activists at all, I can think of a wide variety of businesses and individuals who could use it, it’s that in our context activism plays the largest role.]