Gearbox – Kenya’s own makerspace

A makerspace (or hackerspace) is a space for members to showcase their innovative ideas and share tools and knowledge. It can be viewed as a open community lab incorporating elements of machine shops and workshops where people come together and build and make things. The individual character of a makerspace is determined by its members and as these spaces are not uncommon around the world, spaces with different specialisations have emerged. With the advent of crowdfunding and Kickstarter, the tools required to build makerspaces is put to a larger audience.
Erik Hersman a.ka WhiteAfrican and the iHub team are responsible for making Kenya’s first Makerspace come to life. The iHub community got started by its own without enough resources to be viable and was sort of a pre-makerspace. The main difference from a makerspace being that there are no tools except internet connectivity at hand. Gearbox is geared towards changing the way “techies” work by nurturing a community working on projects in computer technology, robotics, industrial art and electronics. “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.”– Erik Hersman said to The newly opened hackerspace will be open to all at $12 monthly subscription.

Although this is the first Makerspace in Kenya, there are several forerunners in Africa. WoeLab, the first makerspace in Togo, created by Koffi Sénamé, can brag about working with W.Afate 3D printer. The first 3D printer made from recycled e-waste. BongoHive is a technology and innovation hub in Lusaka (Zambia) and new makerspaces and hubs are created each month.1

Companies such as Fablab already exist in Nairobi and the difference between a makerspace and a Fablab is easily explained. Fablabs are a network of spaces started by Neil Gershenfeld at MIT, while a makerspace is not usually affiliated with either a business or a program. Another Makerspace franchise is TechShop, a for-profit Open-access public workshop.
Many cases, one being the W.Afate 3D printer, show that these makerspaces bring innovation and as seen on the map linked below, there are still too few of them in Africa. Sharing the stories of these newly made makerspaces may inspire others to create their own or join an already existing. ”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,” says Erik Hersman on his blog.

1 This map shows the location of current hubs and makerspaces

Johannes Eklind

Bernard Kiwia

As often as possible this blog has underlined the benefit and importance of being a local in order to see the dysfunctions in society. Bernard Kiwia started out as a bicycle mechanic, and by 2007 he had three years of experience. Mr.Kiwia lives in Arusha, Tanzania, one of many towns relying on hydropower. Due to the occasional draught that makes the “hydro” evaporate, Mr.Kiwia often ended up crossing town to recharge his cell-phone . Seeing the need for regularly distributed cell-phone recharging, he put his entrepreneurial wits into work finding a most simple yet genius solution: he created the bicycle driven mobile-phone charger.

The reputation of the young innovationist grew with his invention leading up to an invitation –  to lecture and participate – on technological innovation during the first edition of the International Development Design Summit at MIT. There he expanded his network and influences with other craftsmen and technicians. Later on, back home, he started making things as he describes his current activities. The list of his inventions is long: a wheel truing stand, a solar water heater, a bike-driven blender, a bicycle-powered water pump, just to name a few. During the lectures at MIT the students wondered about the origin of all the designs: did they come from his head or did people come to him with challenges? Bernard replied straightforwardly (see Generation Infonauts article for quote). Mr.Kiwia’s number one tip on what it takes to become an inventor is that you should see yourself as the user and the number one quality of an inventor is self-confidence.

“Invention is a very personal thing: one feels it, and does it.”
Bernard Kiwia – here seen with his bicycle-driven blender

What Mr.Kiwia has done in terms of inventions for civic society is tremendous and has given him a well-earned reputation. However, his eminent quality is his work with the “Accelerating Innovation & Social Entrepreneurship”. AISE is a social enterprise serving as an innovation center of Tanzanian students and instructors, AISE aims to merge local experience and technical knowledge into affordable innovations. Through school and community workshops aspires youth into creating their own solutions to community problems. Until now the machines has served only as tools. But as more and more youth participates in innovation-based programs such as AISE the vicinity between man and machine can become something greater. A new awareness permeated by innovation can result in solutions found while working in the field. This project is truly inspiring and is no doubt one of the best ways of spreading innovation into the civic future.

One of Bernard’s latest inventions is the motorcycle-powered thresher for smallholder farmers. The idea emerged out of the concern for small-sized farms trying to compete with mid-sized farms. To understand the necessity of a solution, one must first be handed some facts: while large farms tend to produce crops for exporting purposes, mid to small-sized farms compete on the local food markets. Mid-sized farms can often distribute enough crops to influence the market price and take advantage of economies of scale.  Mid-sized farmers can to a higher degree invest in efficient technologies, such as an engine-powered harvester that harvests, threshes, and winnows all at once. Smallholder farmers, however, are very much price-takers. With just five to ten acres, small farms are exempted from the power to influence the value of their crops through pricesetting. In fact, small farms may have to accept lower prices then they can afford as a consequence of the mid-sized competitors who’s per unit price is lower.   Mr.Kiwia noticed this acrimonious injustice due to size and the small-sized farmers despondency that has been hard to overcome until now. In addition, the threshing is tough work. Small-sized farmers with their constrained budgets cannot afford expensive labor resulting in two or three days of tirelessly smacking big bundles of rice stock against the ground until all the individual rice falls off. This sort of work has it price, especially on farmers in their 40s and 50s. By contributing Bernard’s new machine to society he will be able to both press expenses down and make life less backbreaking for farmers.

What Mr.Kiwia is doing for his society is outstanding. By passing on the essential quality innovation as an incentive is exorbitant for his society, driving it towards new boundaries. He contributes in places where it is most needed but unfortunately the amiable role he plays is rarefied. The world needs more people like Bernard Kiwia.

TG Teigland

Credits to Diane Hendrix