This variety sheds light on the real power of a makerspace — it does not tell you what to build, or even necessarily how to build it. It asks its members what they would build for themselves. This does not guarantee that everything made within its walls will be “high-impact” — tinkering is an essential part of learning to use new tools. Gearbox has seen plenty of 3D printed toys, surfboards, and other fun projects made in its workshop. Many of these items are being built by the same people who are also working on making cooking fuel affordable to people living on less than sh.200 a day (PayGo Energy), or sanitary towel dispensers for women and girls living in slum communities (Esvendo). The fact that the community Gearbox serves are making these things themselves is what gives meaning to the phrase “local solutions for local problems.”
Turning the things they make into economic impact requires a specific kind of makerspace, however. While it is open to everyone regardless of what they are making, Gearbox is designed to serve the needs of hardware entrepreneurs — those launching a business around designing and making physical, manufacturable products. Broadly speaking, we’ve found three things that make a makerspace useful to hardware entrepreneurs in Kenya: space, tools, and people.
The space needs to be physically large enough to build large projects (like a farm-scale biogas digester), host a small team, handle inventory, or set up low-volume assembly lines. It needs to be polished enough to host meetings and welcome clients, and should have amenities like conference rooms and breakout spaces. At 100 square feet per member, 20,000 square feet is a rough lower boundary for a space with 200 active members — enough to begin to build a viable sustainability model for the space itself.
The equipment needs to be of professional quality. While consumer-grade laser cutters, 3D printers, and desktop CNC machines are getting better every year, few can stand up to 12 hours of daily use by members of varied skill levels. A makerspace’s equipment gets beat up fast, and the tools need to be able to handle abuse, especially when replacement parts can take weeks or months to arrive from overseas.
Keeping all of that equipment in working order requires a full-time professional staff. The difference between a well-tuned band saw and one with a wobbly blade can be the difference between a prototype that’s polished enough to show to an investor, or hours of struggle to make anything that doesn’t look like an amateur affair. Gearbox’s staff don’t just keep the machines working — they teach members why and where details and precision matter; they design and build prototypes for contracting clients; and they make sure that Gearbox is always a friendly and welcoming space to everyone, no matter their background. They are at the heart of everything Gearbox does, and the main reason members and clients come back.
These three things — a physically large space, high quality equipment, and a full-time professional staff — are the key components of a makerspace for hardware entrepreneurs, and assembling them in a place like Kenya is not easy. Tools and equipment are hard to find and expensive to import, infrastructure like electricity or internet are unreliable, regulatory processes like starting a company or nonprofit are lengthy and opaque, and engineering talent can be hard to find and harder to keep when competing with industry. A fully equipped, 20,000 square-foot or larger space will cost $3 to $5 million dollars to build. Anything less is likely to fall short of the goal of helping entrepreneurs take their ideas from prototype to market at any significant scale.