By Booker Omole
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