Up&Ap: Dr Kamau Gachigi on setting up Gearbox to link scientists and the market


Who is Kamau Gachigi? Give us a background about your personal and professional life.

I am married with 2 lovely children and live in Nairobi. I did my undergraduate degree in materials science in the UK in 1988 and my doctorate in the US in Solid State Science (the engineering and material used). I made the decision to come back to Kenya in 1998 having lived in Japan for almost 3 years where I conducted research for TDK on materials for electronic components. I then taught materials science to electrical and mechanical engineering students at the University of Nairobi from 1999 to 2014, where part of my mandate was to lead the committee charged with setting up a Science and Technology Park – a real estate based development designed to facilitate for effective interactions between scientists, engineers business advisors and marketing experts etc. to develop technologies from more basic research done within the University.

Sadly, the bureaucracy became a key challenge and I decided to leave to set and run Gearbox, in partnership with local software hub called the iHub.

  1. You wear many hats. Apart from being a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, which other positions do you hold or which other projects (and initiatives) are you involved with?

I was a key consultant in the creation of a science curriculum for the Faculty of Arts and Science at the planned Aga Khan University in Arusha.

I also serve as Chairman of the Board of the National Industrial Training Authority, a semi-autonomous government authority, as well as being a member of the Consultative Advisory Group of the Partnership on Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology which falls under the African Union, with support from the World Bank.

(TOP: Dr Kamau Gachigi during a TED Talk in Tanzania in 2017. Photo: YouTube. BELOW: Dr Kamau hosting guests and explaining to them how Gearbox operates). 

I also serve on the Global Council of the Future of Production under the World Economic Forum whose role it is to assess the readiness of countries around the world for the 4thIndustrial Revolution (4IR).

Gearbox prides itself as a window into the 4th Industrial for innovators and would-be inventors in Kenya. The 4IR is characterized by disruption of existing economies and businesses by way of the introduction of new technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), molecular biology etc.

  1. You’ve served as the Executive Director of Gearbox Kenya for a number of years. Tell us more about the organization and what informed the decision to set it up.

Gearbox is a non-profit space around which a supportive ecosystem for hardware entrepreneurs is provided so as to create a pipeline of hardware-based businesses. The ultimate projected capacity of Gearbox is to house a collection of machines for design and prototyping of all classes of materials, from metals to wood, plastics to electronics, concrete and ceramics, and more. The facilities are accessed by a wide variety of users including individual engineers and “makers”, SMEs and even established mulitnationals.

In the course of my teaching at the University of Nairobi for almost 15 years, I routinely witnessed students and faculty with impressive ideas which rarely see the light of day due to the lack of connections between them and the market place. The purpose of the Science and Technology Park at the University was to provide this ecosystem, but due to the slow pace of development I decided to set up Gearbox to achieve the same goal.

Because our clients require to make physical things, as opposed to the typical type of software-based technologies that Kenya as the Silicon Savanah is better known for, we identified the need for the creation of a working prototype as a key intervention to enable ideas to go to market. This makes it possible for innovators to test the market through ‘user experience” (UX) trials whereby they can test the reaction of people to their product, so that they can use the results to attract investors.

Gearbox has placed a collection of tools that are typically inaccessible to most innovators in our engineering space. The users pay a membership fee, much like they would in a gym, to access these machines. Those that are further along with their development can also sublet space from us in an incubator mode. We also offer course on technologies associated with the 4IR through Gearbox Academy using adaptive learning methodologies which allow students to engage in a flexible way.

(Kamau Gachigi – left – engages in chat with President Uhuru Kenyatta during a visit to the facility. On the right is Erik Hersman, the co-founder of iHub and BRCK. Photo:      iHub     ).

(Kamau Gachigi – left – engages in chat with President Uhuru Kenyatta during a visit to the facility. On the right is Erik Hersman, the co-founder of iHub and BRCK. Photo: iHub).

  1. Kenya currently has innovation hubs and co-working spaces in most major urban centres. How different is the Gearbox model from what exists in these innovation hubs and co-working spaces like iHub, Nailab, LakeHub and @iLabAfrica?

There is nobody else in Africa doing quite what GB is doing, especially because we offer access to our platform to all and sundry. We also target two broad types of people: engineers, people without an engineering background but with a talent for engineering, and people with need for a product who are willing to pay for its development. The second group is very interesting as it is people who can be introduced to 4IR based skills from a “high level” (meaning without going deep) and then be very productive employing the technologies to make products. These we call “makers”.

  1. On the website, it’s stated that Gearbox Kenya provides inventors and entreprenuers working from the facility with design spaces, capacity to develop and prototype ideas, provide Human Centered Development education, and develop value chain linkages which help innovators to build network and scale in bringing their products to market. Please explain, especially what you mean by ‘Human Centered Development education’.

It is not unusual for an innovator to develop a product that does not meet the needs of desires of the market. Quite often engineers get so absorbed by the technical side of their innovation that they neglect to find out what the user of their design wants. Take for example someone designing a cooking stove. The designer clearly needs to ensure that it functions correctly. But they should also be very concerned about where in the kitchen it should sit, what kind of kitchen space the demographic they are targeting uses, how many meals should be cooked at a go, how easily it is to connect to the energy source, how safe it is to use, and even what shape and colour it should be. These considerations make all the difference to success in the face of competition. Human (or user) centred design is making sure that you place the user at the heart of your design process. We teach innovators how to systematically do this, and here’s what that looks like:

  • Who are the users of a tool and how will they interact with it. It needs to help them reach their goal – who am I building this for? Unless you’re building a product for yourself, you have to start by thinking about your audience

  • Finding the right problem and solving it by talking to people and understanding the need. This takes time and patience.

  • Everything is a system and needs to work like a well-oiled machine. By this I mean there needs to be a bigger picture and what you want to achieve as well as the final result. Users should have a good user experience at all touch-points be it digitally or physically.

  • Testing your design decision and if it really fits a need – ‘need over ego’.

  1. Since it was set up, how many prototypes designed and developed from Gearbox Kenya have been turned into successful products and launched into the market?

Funding is a huge challenge for people to launch into the market. Government should come on board to facilitate more to local innovators and help in content promotion.

  1. Does the Gearbox Kenya team conduct outreach programmes to create awareness about the facility to other parts of the country and in order to attract potential inventors and tech entrepreneurs outside Nairobi?

Gearbox has been fortunate enough to be able to interact with a number of International organizations and gain not only insight but also secured funding the cause. We are in the process of rolling out a product called Gearbox MachineANI where we are now going out to the people. One will not need to come to our headquarters to enjoy the services of Gearbox, rather we will have satellite off-shoots that will cater for people even in rural areas.

Innovativeness does not respect geography, brilliant minds exist all over, so we recognize that the people we are targeting are not necessarily here in Nairobi alone; there are wonderful things happening outside Nairobi.

  1. How does Gearbox Kenya work with other government agencies (or institutions) like the Kenya Industrial Development Research Institute (KIRDI) to design and develop some of the prototypes?

We partner with the University of Nairobi, the Technical University of Kenya, and we have MOUs with other institutes of learning from different parts of Kenya. Whilst we do not have a defined relationship with KIRDI, we know people there and interact with them as needed. This does not mean that we won’t develop formal relationships at some point in the future as we are patently aware of the importance of a healthy ecosystem that we are only one part of.

  1. You’ve been quoted as saying that: “Technology can and should be made by the people who live with the problems. This is a key driver for the existence of Gearbox, and this is one of the reasons I opened this hub…” In relation to this comment, what’s your thoughts on foreigners flying into the country and attempting to solve some of the pressing issues via technology from their home countries?

Africa’s population is not only growing faster than any other in the world, the rate of the growth of the middle class is also very high, which means we are becoming a significant market. This means that we are attracting the attention of increasingly more investors and businesses from other parts of the world, notably the US and Europe. Along with this is the increased attention Africa’s challenges are getting from people from outside the continent who are actively setting up companies presenting tech-based solutions to these problems. The typical start-up from outside the continent comes from a mature ecosystem which means they are better able to raise money than their equivalents from within the continent. Whilst at a high level this means such solutions are starting to have a positive impact on lives on the continent, many Africans in the tech-space sometimes feel as though the continent is undergoing a second colonization, i.e. that we’ll wake up a decade from now and find that all the new tech-based economy is owned.

  1. Apart from the fees paid by those using the facility to design and develop their products, where else does Gearbox Kenya draw its resources from?

Gearbox has been funded from the start primarily by The Lemelson Foundation based in the US. Besides them we also have been funded over the years by the Autodesk Fondation of Silicon Valley, and shorter-term funds from both GE Africa and the Philips Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Apart from that we’ve managed to build a steady income ourselves by contracting our services out to people in need of technical solutions to their problems, be it start-ups or mutli-nationals.


  1. What are your thoughts about the state of Kenya’s technical education and transition to the workplace?

Gearbox Academy is where we think we can plug in this space. With the close relationship with Fab Lab network, we see a long-term relationship in a hub and spokes arrangement comprising of a network of Fab Labs which will provide rigorous training through Fab Academy to individuals, many of whom will eventually provide the pipeline for Gearbox’s SME clientele.

  1. In both your personal and professional life, who do you draw inspiration from and why?

My inspiration stems from my passion for the convergence of science and spirituality, and being a Christian, ultimately from Jesus. But apart from that incomparable standard, I draw great inspiration from both my parents in very different ways, and from Malcolm X for the deeply honest way in which he lived, and biologist Rupert Sheldrake for his amazing views on science.

  1. If you’re not doing what you’re doing now – that’s lecturing at UoN and heading Gearbox Kenya as well as other non-profit and volunteer bodies, what would you be engaged in as an alternative career choice?

I am no longer at the University of Nairobi but to answer your question, I would be a writer on science and spirituality. I have particular interest in the linkages between science and spirituality which I believe to be very evident. My doctorate was in Solid State Science at Penn State and I recall that while studying I would be blown away by the linkages that seemed (and continue to seem) so obvious, though I’ll admit not many of my colleagues would necessarily have agreed. Matters of spirituality will need to be addressed more boldly by academia, so as to meet the deep yearning evident especially amongst today’s youth everywhere. Sex, money, drugs – all these distractions do not yield fulfilment. That’s why I feel I need to write and add my voice to those of other opinion formers in these matters.

  1. Where would you like to see Gearbox Kenya in say the next 10 years in terms of expansion as well as successful prototypes launched into the market and the number of people impacted?

10 years, 10 countries, over 100 high-impact innovations through African-owned companies!

Ex-UK PM Tony Blair tours, endorses Gearbox as key facility in stimulating innovation

Ex-UK PM, Tony Blair, while on visit to Kenya recently, took the opportunity to spend time at Nairobi-based engineering innovation hub, Gearbox.

Dr. Kamau Gachigi with Tony Blair outside Gearbox

Dr. Kamau Gachigi with Tony Blair outside Gearbox

In a speech focusing on the opportunities for development in Africa, created by technology access, Blair emphasized the complementary need to also motivate access to skills learning, apply relevant information and to increase the capacity in vocational teaching for the young. He further complimented the Kenya government for playing an important role by pushing the Big 4 Agenda as part of meeting this need. He further stated that it is the application of innovation, which is key to positive change.

Commenting, Blair said; “Gearbox creates a platform to which people can come and get help, and, over time, hopefully Gearbox can expand so what it is provided here (in Nairobi, Kenya), for a limited number of people can be provided on a much larger scale. In the end, it is about scaling up these opportunities (like you see here today).

Blair emphasized that whilst access to information is important, it is the application of technology in a way which solves real problems, that is important and that, especially the young, need a strong degree of guidance on how they apply their ideas on the continent.

Tony Blair speaking at Gearbox

Tony Blair speaking at Gearbox

Blair further stated; “It’s about teaching our young people to be creative thinkers, the Internet and technology can give you the information, but the teachers are going to have to becoming guides in order to enable people to think creatively, because when you think creatively, you come up with these types of inventions. That’s when you have the ability to adapt as the world around you changes. The one thing for sure is, these changes are going to accelerate.”

He also added, that it is important that Kenya plays her role on the broader continental scene; noting thus: “Kenya, within the context of Africa, is known as the center for technological and innovation.”

Commenting on his visit to the Gearbox facility in Nairobi, Blair also said; “What you are doing here at Gearbox is an amazing example [of innovation] and I really do congratulate you.” He added; “Gearbox is a really practical way in which things can be done.” 

Commenting, Gearbox founder and Executive Director, Dr. Kamau Gachigi said; “Technology can and should be made by the people who live with the problems it solves. This is a key driver for the existence of Gearbox and is one of the reasons I opened this hub. For people to manufacture goods that will solve their everyday issues, they need access to powerful tools and support. Gearbox’s model for building maker spaces in this emerging market, is to provide that support, sustainably, while casting the widest possible net for local innovation. Africans have great ideas and incubating those ideas as well as allowing the great minds to grow is important for the continent’s development in this age defined by the 4th industrial revolution.”

Tony Blair pose with the community of innovators and makers from Gearbox

Tony Blair pose with the community of innovators and makers from Gearbox

To date, Gearbox has supported the enablement of hundreds of people develop both themselves and their ideas, working across a whole series of innovation applications. In addition, it is supporting the return of skills to local communities to foster the growth of wealth within informal settlement economies.

Development of technical skills crucial for Kenya’s growth

A few weeks ago, a group of young men went into the compound on Enterprise Road in Industrial Area where the offices of Gearbox are located. Most of them have been working at Kamukunji, in the area where you can find a variety of items fabricated from metal – the boxes that we buy for boarders in school, wheelbarrows, pans and such. At Gearbox, they are undergoing training on the use of modern tools that can enable them replicate their best designs and creations and go into the kind of mass production that can enable them sell more of their work.

The training at Gearbox is an attempt to answer a question that comes up often in discussions on the level of skills that we need as a country as we seek to create more employment for the youth. World Youth Skills Day, which was marked this week, is an opportunity to revisit those discussions and to reflect on the lessons we have learnt so far.

Juakali trainees being taught how to weld

Juakali trainees being taught how to weld

When we started 2jiajiri, we had hoped that the majority of those that would join the programme would be people in business. We had hoped that the mtu wa chuma (metalworker) from Kamukunji, the plumber who is not too sure about their skills and the carpenter who wants to learn something new or different would be the majority. That did not happen, and we found that there were a lot of young men and women who were looking to make a start in the world of work and looked to 2jiajiri for that opportunity.

There were, we discovered, needs at every level: young men and women who needed technical training, others who needed a small boost to get into the world of work and those who were working but felt a need to upgrade their skills. For those already working, like the metalworkers at Kamukunji, their desire to improve their skills could be best expressed by one who makes hinges, for example, finding a way to replicate their best design and to then produce in mass. Those are the ones at Gearbox currently, going through training that they will later put to use when we help put together a common working area.

Someone who typically makes hinges, for example, often wondered how they would arrive at a proper standard and then using their best design, work to replicate that. More work along this line is going on at Proteq Automation, where they are learning to use computer numerical control machines, which take directions from a computer to manufacture a design of choice by controlling cutting, curving of shaping tools.

Juakali trainees showing some design for fabrication

Juakali trainees showing some design for fabrication

Any design that can be represented into a computer model can be made from these machines. First, it is important that interested players take a proactive approach to engaging those interested in improving their skills. This requires close collaboration with the workers, like the artisans in Kamukunji now receiving training. It is also important to approach this work as a good opportunity for business for everyone.

The young men and women undergoing training certainly look forward to becoming better at their job and increasing their opportunities to prosper in business. Second, it is important for policymakers and institutions like ourselves to work with their target audiences and to understand their needs. This has been evident with our engagements with the three classes cited earlier – those who are already working, those who are ready but lack the tools and those who have left school and are looking to get into the world of work. Without a good understanding of the kind of intervention that is needed, one may end up misdirecting ideas and resources.

This will require the kind of insight that William Maluki of Gearbox had as he sought to create a pipe-bender, which would enable metalworkers in the Jua Kali sector achieve bigger numbers at a cheaper cost, enabling mass production and more affordable prices. It is the kind of work that can enable Kenyan technical workers to compete effectively with their counterparts.

Why, for example, wouldn’t a battalion of skilled metalworkers from Kamukunji not be the ones to supply all the houses under construction with hinges, bathroom partitions and window frames? The ambitious Sh10 billion KCB Foundation and MasterCard Foundation partnership under the Young Africa Works programme is one such avenues through which we hope to support the youth to boost their productivity.

Showing off some skills at Gearbox

Showing off some skills at Gearbox

This innovative five-year nationwide project seeks to create one million direct and 500, 000 indirect jobs in agriculture, manufacturing and construction in Kenya under the Foundation’s 2jiajiri programme. As we reflect on World Youth Skills Day, institutions need to feel challenged to make this kind of work possible. By enabling the development of technical skills and know-how, they can not only recruit new customers for themselves but contribute to the development of the skills this country needs. Ms Mwangi is the Managing Director, KCB Foundation.

Read more at CapitalFM:: Development of technical skills crucial for Kenya’s growth https://www.capitalfm.co.ke/eblog/?p=8209

Gearbox, a ‘Factory of factories' helping start-ups in Kenya

[NAIROBI] Esther Mwangi, a 2014 graduate of economics from Kenyatta University in Kenya who wanted to venture into entrepreneurship but had no clear path, started off selling solar panels in coastal parts of the country as she conducted market research on other possible ventures.

“I was shocked to come across statistics showing that 65 per cent of women in Kenya could not afford sanitary towels in 2016,” Mwangi told SciDev.Net. “This really touched me and moved me into thinking of how I can help provide a solution in the country.”

One in every ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa miss school during menstruation and this could affect the goal number four on quality education of the UN’s Agenda 2030 on sustainabledevelopment, according to the UNESCO.

When Mwangi moved to Nairobi and visited schools in the city’s informal settlement areas, her interactions with girls confirmed that majority of them lacked access to sanitary pads.

“Some were even using sponges and other unsafe pieces of clothes. As a result they could skip classes during their menses,” Mwangi narrated to SciDev.Net.

Mwangi decided to build a vending machine for providing affordable sanitary pads. While sharing the idea with a friend who worked at iHub in Nairobi, she learnt about Gearbox.

“I went to Gearbox and shared my idea. I wanted this to work. I had no engineering background but I had the passion to move it,” she explained. “At Gearbox, an engineer helped me design [the] pads vending machine. Additionally, Gearbox got me a grant through a philanthropist to actualise my design and have vending machines that are available and accessible 24 hours a day.”

Gearbox is a hardware accelerator venture in Kenya that helps potential inventors such as Mwangi to get space for hardware design, training, mentorship and finally actualise ideas.

Why hardware accelerator was formed


Kenyan engineer Kamau Gachigi realised in 2008 that most of the tech start-ups were in software development.

In 2011, Gachigi came up with the idea of setting up a space for hardware incubation in Kenya called Gearbox. At this venture, people including those without formal engineering education with innovative ideas are given access to machines they can use to design and actualise their innovation.

“At the University of Nairobi, I was teaching engineering students who had bright ideas that I knew could contribute to the challenge of industrialisation if they had access to equipment,” said Gachigi recalling how access to facilities could enable students to test their ideas.

A holder of US patent for innovation, and an academician, Gachigi set up Gearbox in 2011 to help bridge the gap of inadequate engineers needed for Africa’s industrialisation. The space operates like a community that brings like-minded people to work together and create products that meet international standards and customised to Africa to address the problems on the continent.

Addressing the TED Global Conference held in Arusha, Tanzania in 2017, Gachigi said there is a need to create an environment in Africa that allows the few engineering students and graduates to test their ideas and start businesses.

“Most governments in Africa have a plan for economic growth anchored on industrialisation such as the Kenya’s Vision 2030,” said Gachigi, adding that the world is going through an industrial revolution.

Gachigi, who has a doctorate in solid state science, said that his interactions with Kenyans, especially those who had not accessed formal education, showed that they had good ideas that if turned into products could help transform livelihoods.

Creating affordable innovations through Gearbox

Through her venture called EsVendo, Mwangi has placed sanitary towels vending machines in two slums of Kibera and Kawangware in the outskirts of Nairobi. The venture is an innovative distribution system that operate like ATM machines where one can collect a pad upon payment anytime.

“The passion and working work really matter in order to be successful in entrepreneurship in the field you are venturing in.”

Kamau Gachigi, Gearbox

They are placed at strategic points in the slums where girls can easily access them and also in hospitals where adult women can access them. This has increased access to sanitary towels and reduced the stigma of not using them among school girls, according to Mwangi.

The girls in the areas can now buy a pad at ten Kenyan shillings (about ten US cents) compared with the price of most pads in the market that go for about 70 US cents.

The story is not different for June Kimani, whose venture, housed at the Gearbox centre, works on popularising existing sewage treatment technologies exported from Japan.

The venture called Usafi Comfort, gives wastewater treatment technologies such as water-saving devices and wastewater recycling solutions to residential and commercial needs across Eastern Africa.

“This holds the promise of a new industry with many jobs, better healthcare outcomes thus stretching universal healthcare further, enabling affordable housing off-the-grid, conserving the environment and fixing a pervasive dignity deficit,” Kimani explained.

Although the technologies are still expensive to be used in many settlements in the country, Kimani said that they are working on affordable innovations for Kenyans.

“Gearbox has given us space to rent at affordable rates and they are patient when rent is late as is normal with start-ups. This enables us to survive through tough times,” Kimani added.

She explained that Gearbox also provides “an ecosystem from which we get engineering experience that enables us to have an elastic workforce without having to employ a large staff full time”.

This involves many engineers from the venture who can be hired on either part-time or short-term basis. “This space attracts many visitors some of whom become our clients and other partners in working to improve technologies,” Kimani told SciDev.Net.

According to Kimani, early this year, her venture needed to assemble control panels locally to save on import duty, an exercise that was done successfully thanks to the expertise from Gearbox engineers.

Kenya and other African countries will require more advanced infrastructure for sewage management in buildings, she said, to progressively reduce the volumes of untreated sewage being released into the environment.

Gearbox inventors have created a space of about 25,000 square feet for potential hardware developers to create globally competitive innovations. As of May this year, Gearbox has enabled 22 start-ups to design hardware that they use to address common challenges facing people in Kenya, says William Maluki, head of engineering at Gearbox, Kenya.

These include Paygo Energy venture that develops a clean energy distribution service which enables people to pay and access cooking fuel globally.

“Start-ups need space to work, to continue improving their products or ideas, to write emails, and even proposals for funding and that’s what Gearbox gives,” Maluki explained.

Gearbox led to the formation of Gearbox International Foundation in 2017 as a platform to be used to help others in low- and middle-income countries around the world to build similar ventures. The Foundation also shares lessons learnt from the challenges that faced the development of Gearbox in Kenya with new hardware manufacturing space makers to enable them work easily.

Solving development challenges

According to the Gearbox Foundation, hardware solutions are required to solve many challenges such as sanitation, food security and access to affordable housing faced by developing countries.
The Foundation says that at least 11 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals including access to clean water and sanitation, and decent work and economic growth will require hardware technology development or the cost-effective adoption of existing hardware technologies.

Phylis Wakiaga, chief executive officer of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, says that ventures such as Gearbox play a critical role in driving the growth of the economy through employment and wealth creation, adding that start-ups are the future large companies, which will position Kenya and Africa in the global market as a force to reckon with.

“Innovation is critical for the sustainability and competitiveness of local industries in the light of a changing world,” Wakiaga tells SciDev.Net. “Providing incentives such as reduced cost of energy, tax incentives, and low cost of raw materials that will reduce the overall cost of production will in turn encourage local industries to increase their production and investment in research and development leading to more innovation in industries.”

Plans to reach more innovators

According to Maluki, start-ups could access space at Gearbox through two ways. First, they could become members by registering after paying US$100 a month for daily access or US$40 for two days a week. This enables innovators to access equipment and co-working space. Alternatively, they could rent unused space on the premises.

“We want to have an ecosystem of like-minded entrepreneurs and innovators who work on hardware products,” said Maluki.

Maluki says that local hardware developers were previously not progressing because they had to import almost all the raw materials including design services. “This made hardware development extremely expensive, a gap that Gearbox has largely bridged,” said Maluki, explaining that Gearbox gives most of the services such as design freely.

He adds that hardware development is challenging because it involves a lot of logistics, designing, with some of the products created as a result of importing designs being inappropriate for the local markets and thus not solving the problems facing people.

Gearbox inventors plan to open up satellite spaces in other parts of the country including rural areas to open up space for more people to invest in hardware technology. “This should not leave any innovator behind, even those in remote parts of the country should access services and space provided for by Gearbox,” Maluki said.

“Gearbox has given us space to rent at affordable rates and they are patient when rent is late as is normal with start-ups.”

June Kimani, Usafi Comfort

Currently, Gearbox is working with the Red Cross to establish a satellite hardware innovation space in Lamu County, coastal Kenya.

“There’s a growing interest in what we do. Recently, Laikipia County governor requested us to establish mobile classrooms to build the capacity of students from his county,” said Maluki. We want more young people to take advantage of equipment here to strengthen especially engineering training which is more practical in an industrial space that we offer. We need more spaces accessible to youth to innovate and create hardware that can help solve challenges facing the common people in Africa.”

But for ventures such as Gearbox to expand and trickle down to improve economies, Maluki said that African governments need to support them.

This is because Gearbox is modelled after similar ventures in the United States that require a lot of funds. However, the over-reliance on donor funding threatens its sustainability and could fold up if not properly funded like some in the United States which have closed down.

For example, lack of funding makes the purchase of some of the machines such as Tormac CNC milling machine, Gearbox inventors want to use impossible. Maluki urges governmentsto support the venture by reducing tax on importation of machines and equipment to be used in the space.

“These machines will be used in building the capacity of our young people and providing opportunities for inventors to create,” explained Maluki. “This eventually creates jobs and can help employ a large number of young graduates who are unemployed. Failure by the government to support such ventures as Gearbox is like shooting at its own feet.”

Gearbox has attracted many prominent people globally especially technology entrepreneurs who have heaped praise on the venture. For instance, during a tour of Africa in 2016, Facebook’s chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg visited the premises of the venture to meet innovators and was amazed with the technological work being done.

Two years later, British business experts who accompanied the country’s Prime Minister Theresa May to Kenya also visited the premises and talked to hardware innovators who pitched their ideas to them.

“This shows the interest in what hardware tech inventors are doing in Kenya and Africa is gaining prominence and many people could invest so long as they are convinced the product is market ready,” Maluki said.

Impacts on student trainees

Gearbox also has an academy that trains university students and give them hands-on experience to build their capacity. “We use mastery-based methodology where we expose trainees to material and evaluate them until they master the content,” Maluki added.

Start-up Blazes Kenya’s Path To Fourth Industrial Revolution

Dr Kamau Gachigi of Gearbox meets the facebook CEO in Nairobi

Dr Kamau Gachigi of Gearbox meets the facebook CEO in Nairobi

An Interview with Dr. Kamau Gachigi, the Executive Director and Founder of Gearbox Limited. As published in the March/April Issue of the Kenya Engineer Magazine. 

Kenya seeks to embrace industrialization both under Vision 2030 and within the recently underlined Big Four initiative. Yet, not many Kenyans know that a local enterprise is already blazing the trail on the manufacturing front. Dr Gachigi explains how Gearbox Ltd is setting trends in industrial innovations in Kenya;

What is your background?

Before launching Gearbox, I taught engineering at the University of Nairobi for about 15 years. During that period, I consistently observed that a good number of our graduate engineers, and many other graduates in general, bubble with ideas ripe for commercialization. However, they lack the means and an explicit support system to commercialize, or at the least monetize their ideas. As many as 700-800 engineers graduate from Kenyan universities every year.

While at the University of Nairobi, assisted by former PS Prof. Crispus Kiamba, I started the Fab Lab through funding from the government. I later left the university to start Gearbox with the crew at the iHub, Kenya’s best known software space.

What does Gearbox set out to achieve?

Gearbox has a collection of digital fabrication machines that are available to interested parties on a shared-access basis. Essentially, we operate like a gym. We grant access to people on a membership basis. One exciting aspect about Gearbox is that it plugs directly in to the sensibilities and hallmarks of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or 4IR. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that cut across a number of fields and blur the lines between physical and digital spheres. Before 4IR there were other significant industrial revolutions.

Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of World Economic Forum, captures the highlights of 4IR in a memorably succinct manner in a 2016 paper titled, ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond.’ Schwab argues that;

“The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is  building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres”.

Which technological breakthroughs has Gearbox achieved so far?

One of our engineers, Kimali Muthoka, designs the circuitry for the big three speed governor suppliers in Kenya. This means we are capable of making the speed governor prototype at Gearbox, ensure it works well and then send it off  to China(yes, China) when large numbers are needed. Douglas Omondi, on the other hand, was contracted to design and make 50 circuits for a pay-as-you-go system for solar water pumping. This feat was accomplished within two weeks, yet it would have taken perhaps two months had it been outsourced.


Overtime, at Gearbox, we have made Computer Numerical Control(CNC)machines such as plasma cutters and wood routers in-house, both which are making big sales in Nairobi. Interestingly Gearbox is about innovations and giving life to these innovations. This means that we are not only restricted to projects related to engineering. A good example is Esther Mwangi, who is not an engineer, but developed an idea of creating vending machines to retail sanitary towels. Her idea was transformed into 4 prototypes that allowed her to set up a pilot. She is now setting up 50 machines equipped with Internet of Things(IoT) for remote management of sales and accounts through the internet.

My current Head of Engineering, William Maluki, is at Pier9, a cutting-edge facility in Silicon Valley in California, developing an automated pipe-bender for the African market. Meanwhile, my former students setup a company that is building 3D printers. One of their inventions was used to print models for the famous surgery in which conjoined twins(joined at the spine) were successfully separated at the Kenyatta National Hospital by a team of local doctors.


Kenyans have distinguished themselves as a very receptive lot when it comes to innovation in ICT. How do you propose to imbue the same spirit into industrialization?

It is already there! In my line of work, I always come across amazing young people who engaged in numerous artisanal production such as production of sufurias, cassava flour, condiments, washing machines, you name it. These artisans use traditional non-mechanized processes. In spite of the many financial handicaps we face as a country there is still tremendous production going on in Kenya. I believe that with well-placed policy implementations, our craftsmen and women can collectively make a huge impact on joblessness and increase our GDP. However, the trouble is hardware tends to be less attractive than ICT and hence some of these artisans are not considered when people talk about industrial revolution.

Fortunately, the role of Gearbox is to introduce these people to modern tools that can pave the way for product improvement. By modern, I have in mind electronics control systems in manufacturing such as robotics, payment systems automated through the IoT, block-chain solutions, augmented and virtual reality. We teach all these using intense short courses. We also partner on the same with world leaders such as Autodesk,  Dassault Systems and Microsoft.

India started her industrial journey with textile manufacturing. What is Kenya’s best bet as a starting point?

One of the central tenets of economics is the notion of comparative advantage,which in my mind can result in handicapped thinking. Japan, a nation without iron ore or coal, went from zero steel production in the 1960s to becoming the biggest steel producer globally in the 1980s. Taiwan went from zero electronics to become, at one point, the global leader in the production of integrated circuits(ICs). Most Far Eastern nations have developed similar successes in areas that they apparently had no historical strength. But if you look more closely, the common thread is that they developed  and then leveraged the most important resource any nation has-its human resource. This was done through policies that encouraged State sponsorship of their own citizens in the best universities in countries in North America and Europe. After graduation, the graduates would be encouraged to work and gain experience in industries in the developed countries. Later the government would support their return allowing them to up of similar industries. This has always proven to be a winning strategy.

I recently met a Kenyan who set up a business in the US after his studies in hi-tech materials science. Tony Githinji is the CEO of 4 Wave, whose customer base includes companies like Samsung, and has facilities in Asia too. He is now getting set to move his base from the U.S. to Kenya. Through companies such as his, I believe we can gain strengths in areas that are considered to be out of our league as a so-called third world country. His products could conceivably include cutting edge energy sources based on materials like graphene, and even super conductors.

Among the nations of the world that have embraced industrialization to a good showing, which ones offer the most immediate inspiration to Kenya and in what exact ways?

I immediately think of Brazil and India. I am privileged to serve as the chair of the Board of the National Industrial Training Authority(NITA) and we recently did bench marking tours in both countries. It is amazing what they have achieved.

As you know, Brazil produces Embraer aircraft, through an intentional government-supported industrial endeavour. India makes just about every thing and lays particular emphasis on human resource development. In both cases the deliberate development of human resource right from the technical-skilled person on the factory floor to Ph.D. is prioritized. This approach is critical for industrialization. What they have done, we can also do.

What’s in the horizon for Gearbox?

We are very keen to expand the range of machines we can offer our members, and to also expand our activities to the informal sector so that, for example, those who fabricate metal and wood can upgrade their operations to compete with imports. We’re also looking to get into printed circuit board assembly and fabrication on a contract basis. That way, circuits for speed governors are manufactured in Kenya

Creating tools for manufacturing in Africa, with William Maluki

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Creating tools for manufacturing in Africa, with ENG. William Maluki

Creating tools for manufacturing in Africa, with ENG. William Maluki

This week on the Finding Impact Podcast, we are kicking off a new series on hardware entrepreneurs, this one with William Maluki of Gearbox about creating tools for manufacturing in Africa. This is the first episode in a 3-part series on invention-based entrepreneurs, supported by The Lemelson Foundation. The series aims to provide unique insights into some of the challenges and workarounds faced by entrepreneurs creating hardware products in emerging markets.

On this podcast, you will learn:

  • Why and how William invented a marvellous machine called KunjaBot that is an automatic pipe bender specifically designed for people in the Juakali (informal manufacturing) sector in Kenya. The KunjaBot provides the Juakali sector with access to mass manufacturing capabilities at affordable costs while improving quality and profit margins and allowing them to compete against imported products.

  • About the pay-as-you-bend (akin to a pay-as-you-go) business model of the KunjaBot that enables the Juakali to avoid expensive purchasing costs of manufacturing equipment and absolves them of the costs for operating and maintaining the equipment.

  • How William has dealt with barriers while building the KunjaBot such as customer demand, lack of awareness among the Juakali, business model changes, manufacturing challenges, commitment and lead times from suppliers and contractors, as well engineering and accounting skills to get his project off the ground, etc.

  • About the Gearbox initiative in Kenya and how it enables and provides incredible support to hardware entrepreneurs and inventors to design and build their products through capacity building, maker spaces and engineering and technology support.

  • Finally, you will learn about the new the actionable playbook for invention-based entrepreneurs based on interviews and discussions with leaders in the field, delving into the challenges of bringing physical products into the market. The playbook prepared by Finding Impact will provide actionable content around issues such as workarounds, hiring teams, raising funds, creating minimum viable products and launch strategies, to help entrepreneurs on their invention journey. Click here to sign-up for the playbook.

Sharing Global Perspectives – Social Innovation Safari in Kenya

A common saying in show business is, “show, don’t tell.” The same maxim applies to social innovation. For each Social Innovation Class, we organize a Social Innovation Safari (Swahili word for “tour/travel”) – a tour to showcase to Fellows innovative social enterprises working in different sectors in Nairobi, Kenya.

In early April, Fellows from the current Kenya Social Innovation Management Class (10) went on a tour of four different social enterprises in Nairobi. The Safari is meant to showcase 4 key dimensions of social impact work:

  1. To show the spectrum of different ways to be a social impact organization (from NGO to enterprise, on field or not).

  2. To emphasize the need for collaboration with people with different perspectives to achieve systemic change.

  3.  To see the concepts taught in class (especially Amani Social Innovation Framework) in action.

  4.  To be aware of the challenges of changemaking and the grit needed to shepherd social transformation.

Where We Visited

Sanergy – was the first pit stop in the Kenya Social Innovation Safari. Founded in 2011, Sanergy is addressing the huge deficit in adequate Water, Sanitation and Health (WASH) facilities for Nairobi’s ever-growing population. 66% of waste in Nairobi is not treated – a huge health threat to Nairobi’s population of over 4 million. This deficit makes it essential to innovate and come up with context sensitive solutions. Through their novel Fresh Life toilets, Sanergy has helped enhance access to hygienic sanitation facilities for over 90,000 people living in Mukuru slums in Nairobi whilst also employing people in the informal settlements in latrine maintenance.  A new innovation that has been introduced by Sanergy is the Mtaa Fresh pit latrine emptying service which has helped minimize waste into rivers as well as reducing prevalence of water borne diseases.

Gearbox is a hardware makerspace that provides a technical support system for innovators . For developing countries, research and development is critical for development. However, in most cases access to machinery, training and a community dedicated to hardware development is a challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa. Since its inception in 2011, Gearbox has helped innovators in technical fields refine their solutions and consequently develop viable products.

Tunapanda Institute provides young people in Kibera – the biggest informal settlement in Nairobi – with access to affordable technology, design and business training courses. For many young people living in Kibera, the skills derived from their training has has given them the chance  to earn a living as well as help improve the outlook on life for their families with a profound impact on the community, too.

The last stop on the Social Innovation Safari was Sunculture. One of the biggest resources in Kenya is solar energy. Given the fact that agriculture is the biggest economic activity in the country, Sunculture have designed innovative water pumping solutions that harness solar power for irrigation. This has consequently helped to enhance productivity of farmers through the provision of a regular supply of water for crop cultivation.

Top Takeaways from the Safari

For Changemakers, understanding local context is key

From the site visits, one of the things that was very evident was the aspect of designing solutions based on the immediate context to ensure sustainability. Sanergy looked at how do they offer sanitation solutions in areas with little or no pre-existing infrastructure. Tunapanda did an incredible job of looking at the environment and pricing their products in such a way as to get as many participants as possible in a challenging social environment. Whichever the industry, it is a prerequisite to take time, study the local context and then design solutions based on learnings gleaned from the scoping study.

Value of partnerships/Community in changemaking

In the field of changemaking, we should always look to leverage the skills, networks and resources that are availed particularly with project partners.  Over the years, Gearbox has created a vibrant community of innovators involved in hardware development where they can share knowledge and resources. Sanergy, in looking to establish the FreshLife toilets in slums, considered how they could partner with the community. Through their sensing phase, they managed to learn which sanitation solutions could work and then developed prototypes which evolved into established products.

Impact is Relative/Do not Compare Impact

One of the questions that changemakers often ask themselves is “am I doing enough?” This is a valid question but often times this question is rooted in comparison with the work others are doing.  From what we have surmised, impact is always measurable but relative. Sanergy is doing a great job of providing sanitation for over 90,000 people in Nairobi but so is Tunapanda Institute who have trained over 300 youths to code in Kibera and Turkana. Depending on the context, resources available and the resultant solutions developed, impact quantitatively can differ. However, what is most important is the thought process and desire to improve communal welfare via the innovations we come up with.

My internship experience at Gearbox.

- By Farida Kerubo, Electronics and Electrical Engineering Intern

I have been an intern at Gearbox Limited in Nairobi for the past four months.Gearbox is a company that aims at improving the ecosystem for hardware entrepreneurship by providing flexible working space, shared prototyping facilities, training in manufacturing, fabrication and design as well as mentor ship, investment opportunities, incubation and community development.I first heard of Gearbox from a university of Nairobi student who went on to work for Gearbox after college.However, I became more familiar with the company during an I-SHOW competition for makers in which it was featured as a sponsor and on the forefront showcasing products that had been developed within the company. I went on to learn more about their products from a presentation at the workshop and decided to apply for an internship.


My position for the four months was Electronics Engineer Intern working under the the Electronics department with a team of four other engineers.During this period, I was involved in a couple of projects involving both the mechanical and electronics disciplines but key among them was developing a dispensing unit for sanitary towels. As a Woman in Tech, this project in particular hit home given that I was coming up with a product that was key in improving the lives of young girls and women in rural Kenyan areas.

Skills gained during this projects such as fabrication of PCB boards, developing the firmware, using PCB making and printing machines reinforced all my theoretical knowledge and helped increase my professional confidence. The experience I gained doing those projects was invaluable, even though it seemed very difficult and frustrating at times.

The coolest thing about this internship was being able to deliver product(s) to client(s) at different stages and hearing all the feedback.

Expanding my professional network was very important to me during this experience. I did a good job at accomplishing my tasks and seeking help whenever I was stuck with anything. I got an opportunity to interact with other players in the industry who visited Gearbox during my stay there and networked with various people.

Overally, I had a rewarding internship experience.

Roy Allela Develops App to Communicate With 6-Year-Old Deaf Niece

The Sign-IO app, which vocalises words signed by the person wearing the gloves

The Sign-IO app, which vocalises words signed by the person wearing the gloves

Roy Allela, a 25-year-old Kenyan technology evangelist, has invented smart gloves that convert sign language movements into audio speech.

According to Allela, his inspiration to build the technology was inspired by the need to communicate with his 6-year-old niece who was born deaf.

Allela disclosed that his niece found it difficult to communicate with her family since none of them understood sign language. 

The gloves – named Sign-IO – have flex sensors stitched on to each finger. The sensors quantify the bend of the fingers and process the letter being signed. 

The gloves are then paired via Bluetooth to a mobile phone application that Allela also developed, which then vocalizes the letters.

Kenyan technology evangelist, Roy Allela

Kenyan technology evangelist, Roy Allela

“My niece wears the gloves, pairs them to her phone or mine, then starts signing and I’m able to understand what she’s saying,” Allela stated.

Allela also commented that like all sign language users, her niece was very good at lip reading thus did not require him to sign her back.

He also revealed that the speed at which the language is converted into audio was one of the most important aspects of the gloves.

“People speak at different speeds and it’s the same with people who sign: some are really fast, others are slow, so we integrated that into the mobile application so that it’s comfortable for anyone to use it,” he divulged.

Furthermore, users can also set the language, gender and pitch of the vocalization through the app, with accuracy results averaging 93 percent.

25-year-old, Roy Allela

25-year-old, Roy Allela

More importantly, Allela stated that the gloves can be packaged in any style that the user wanted such as a princess glove or a Spider-Man one. 

“It fights the stigma associated with being deaf and having a speech impediment. If the gloves look cool, every kid will want to know why you have them on,” commented Allela.

The gloves recently won the hardware trailblazer award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and Allela is using the prize money to land more accurate vocal predictions.

Sign-io’s Founder Roy Allela (center) accepts his trophy

Sign-io’s Founder Roy Allela (center) accepts his trophy

The French Presidential Council at Gearbox

On the 13th March 2019 we had an exciting opportunity to host the French Presidential Council that accompanied President Emmanuel Macron on his trip to Nairobi.

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The delegation, the Presidential Council for Africa (CPA), created on 29 August 2017, is a body composed of nine personalities from civil society, aimed at providing the President of the Republic of France with insight into the stakes involved in the relationship between France and Africa. Listening to the actors of this new relationship, in particular young Africans and diasporas, the CPA provides the Head of State with an overview of perceptions on the ground in sectors of the future such as education, training, culture, health, mobility, digital technology, entrepreneurship and the climate. It is then up to it to formulate, on the basis of these, concrete public policy proposals and actions.

The Delegation getting a tour from Dr. Kamau

The Delegation getting a tour from Dr. Kamau

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With the agenda of equipping young people for employment using digital technology there was a panel (at Nairobi Garage) that exchanged views on the challenges of digital technology and new technologies, which offer new training opportunities for young people and are a driving force for employment.


The panel comprised of;

  • Dr. Kamau Gachigi from Gearbox, on the manufacturing and development of digital tools in favor of job creation,

  • Jane Mwangi from KCB Foundation, on the 2jajiri initiative and the formalization of artisans from the informal sector,

  • Wakiuru Njuguna from Heva Fund, on the incubation and financing of entrepreneurial projects,

  • Laila Macharia from Africa Digital Media Institute (ADMI) School, on training for employment in the digital age

  • Stéphane Andre from Ecole Rubika, on digital technologies as applied to video games and animation content,

  • Charles Houdart from the French Development Agency (AFD), on the cultural and creative Industries and the support of entrepreneurial ecosystems.