Gearbox — From “Shop in a Box” to Industrial-Scale Makerspace

By Paul Birkelo

In this latest industrial revolution, the work of making things is less about rote manual labor, and value is created by designing new things that can be tailor-made for the people who use them. In the world of work soon to be populated by 500 million new young Africans, the makers of things best placed to benefit are likely to be those who can build a business model around the distributed manufacture, rapid iteration, and localized appeal of their designs. In other words, new African jobs will come from Africans designing and making products in Africa, for sale to other Africans.

The first Gearbox workshop in a shipping container

The first Gearbox workshop in a shipping container

This is radically different from the export-led growth model that powered Asia’s boom, and supporting it requires a radically different approach.

One model for doing so is a makerspace. In 2009, the University of Nairobi Fab Lab became one of the first places in Kenya where anyone could go to learn about and use the latest in fabrication technology, from 3D printers to laser cutters and CNC machines. In 2010, the iHub was founded as a gathering space for Nairobi’s tech community, bringing together designers, coders, entrepreneurs, makers, hackers, and global investors. In 2013, the iHub was given a shipping container full of tools (a “shop in a box” including welders and a CNC plasma cutter), and working with the Nairobi Fab Lab and several local companies, launched Kenya’s first makerspace — Gearbox.

From day one, Gearbox has aimed to be Kenya’s “open space for design and rapid prototyping.” Having started from a shipping container, in 2015 it grew into a dedicated 2,500 square-foot space called Gearbox Lite (see featured image). Now, Gearbox is kicking off a new chapter as a 20,000 square-foot makerspace in the heart of Nairobi’s Industrial Area. When fully built out (renovations started in March), Gearbox Industrial will host 9,000 square feet of private office spaces, 6,000 square feet of shared coworking, design lab, classroom, and event spaces, and 5,000 square feet of shared workshops featuring industrial grade equipment for working with wood, metal, plastics, electronics, and digital fabrication.

The ground floor workshop under construction at Gearbox in Industrial area

The ground floor workshop under construction at Gearbox in Industrial area