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!

African Cities Need Tech Coworking Spaces

African techies need community spaces. In Africa it makes sense to have this be part coworking space and part business and idea incubator.

A little background

There is an emergent, yet disconnected, technology community growing in many of the major African cities. The digital connection happens, primarily through email lists or message boards, and from time-to-time there are local physical meet ups, like the recent surge in BarCamps and other non-traditional meetings. What isn’t available is a place to meet that is always available and is made to engage and grow the community.

The VC, investor and business communities in Africa are beginning to see the value and need for web and mobile applications and services. At the same time these same individuals and organizations have no real avenue for engagement with the distributed and independent developer community. What they need is a hub, a place to go to find the young talent, invest in it, and offer monetary opportunities that re-invest in local technology growth.

These hubs would be tech community facilities in major cities with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers and designers. It is part open community workspace (coworking), part investor and VC hub and part incubator. It is the nexus point for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in that area.

What it is

These hubs are community spaces that are open to all web and mobile phone developers. They are owned and supported by the local tech community and organizations that care about seeing this community grow.

It is an incubator, with an in-house investor who acts as advisor, who also helps to vette new entrepreneurs and ideas. It primarily operates off of a micro-VC model (a la Y Combinator) whereby approved entrepreneurs are given support for 3-6 months of work to create and launch their product or service. In that time, they are also given the chance to pitch the completed product to other investors, and are given support on business, licensing and legal issues.

It is where the young and old, new and experienced developers can go to hang out, learn from each other and work on joint projects. There is a real focus on making this open and available at those odd hours which hackers are prone to want to work in. It has a free high-speed internet connection, electricity, and an upbeat and fun environment to work in. It is where the local tech guys and user groups do their monthly and weekly meetings.

It is a coworking space, where freelance developers and designers can rent space (daily/weekly/monthly) and share common meeting rooms for business meetings. They are provided with spacious desks, high-speed internet access, conference rooms, a kitchen, unlimited network printing and faxing, couches and lounging area.

What it isn’t

It isn’t just a business. The end goal of the Innovation Hub in Nairobi is not to make money and be more profitable. Instead, it is to grow a stronger technology community in African cities, one where developers, designers, VCs and businesses are all better connected and mutually benefiting from the growth.

It isn’t a place for an outside sponsor to slap their brand on and call their own. This steals ownership from the local tech community and defeats the purpose of the facility.

Examples in action

They look different in every city, they take on the personalities of the communities that support them, and
(full list of known coworking spaces around the world)

Open Innovation Lab in Cape Town

There are a couple South African coworking spots. The Open Innovation Studio just opened in Cape Town, and I know there are a couple other space like Habitaz in Johannesburg.

Independents' Hall

There are quite a few running around the US right now. The most famous coworking spaces are Independents Hall in Philadelphia (run by my friend Alex) and Citizen Space in San Francisco (run by Chris and Tara).

Colab Orlando - sign

In Orlando, Colab just opened, which I visited today to get a feel for the space. And just recently, my friend Mark Grimes opened up NedSpace in Portland, Oregon.

The Hub London

The Hub is a chain of coworking spaces, you can find one in Cairo. The image above is from their London facility.