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Getting Gear for Gearbox

Gearbox - Kenyas maker and rapid prototying space

Perhaps one of the longest projects to come to fruition for me has been Gearbox. Over three years ago, a couple of us started talking about the need for a makerspace in Nairobi, which turned up a notch to something more like a rapid protoyping and light manufacturing facility. We see Gearbox as the on-ramp for more industrial manufacturing to happen in Kenya.

We were thinking of two types of users. First, somewhere that the rapidly growing community around robotics and electronics at the iHub could use. Second, something that was a step beyond a the FabLab at the University of Nairobi, so more useful to smaller companies.

Recently Lemelson Foundation, alongside AutoDesk, USAID and an unnamed benefactor stepped in to make some funds available to find the location and bring on a full-time Director. Dr. Kamau Gachigi started the Univ of Nairobi FabLab, and having him come on to lead this initiative is a real coup – there’s no one better in the region who has more experience than this for crating a place for inventors and companies working on rapid prototyping.

Kamau Gachigi - Director of Gearbox

Kamau Gachigi – Director of Gearbox

Finding a Space and Filling it up

The two main things we’re trying to get done before the end of the year are finding a great location, and getting the machines and equipment to fill it.

Finding a Space
We’ve been looking all over Nairobi for a 10,000-20,000sqft space for Gearbox. It needs to be convenient to get to, large enough to allow us to grow and flex in, and taking a lesson from TechShop we’d like it to be near places where people would like to be already. This means we don’t want it too deep in the industrial area, but we’d like the edge, say something near/in Railways, or by the Bunyala roundabout.

If you know of someone who has a good location for Gearbox to grow, please let us know.

Getting Equipment
If you’re involved in manufacturing in Kenya, or if you’re just someone who wants to get involved, we’ve created a Gearbox page that shows you how to do that. You can become a corporate or individual sponsor, donate equipment and gear, or give your time to train and help others learn new skills.

The Big Stuff ($5,000 – $100,000+)

  • Vacuum Former
  • 5-axis CNC Router
  • 3-axis CNC Milling Center
  • 3-axis CNC Router
  • Laser cutter
  • Lathe
  • Vertical Mill Machine
  • Automated Pick and Place
  • RFID Access System
  • Punch Press
  • Benchtop CNC
  • Reflow oven
  • Powder Coating Set-up
  • Metcal Advanced Rework Package APR5000-DZ-ML
  • V275-S 4-Pack Inverter Rack Multi-Operator Welder – K2666-1
  • MULTI-WELD® 350 Multi-Operator Welder – K1735-1
  • Elektrabrake, manual
  • Dr. Boy Injection Moulding Machine

There is a lot more needed, many smaller items, which you can also find on the same page.

The companies who are behind getting Gearbox off the ground are the iHub, BRCK, Sanergy, and Ushahidi – while this is a start, it’ll take a lot more help from many more small organizations and individuals. Reach out to Kamau and see how you too can get involved at this early stage.

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!)

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