Simon Wachira -- How I got started with digital fabrication in Kenya

Simon Wachira is the founder of Proteq Automation, an advanced manufacturing company that makes CNC machines in Nairobi, Kenya, and the former Head of Engineering at Gearbox. In this interview, Simon tells us about his inspiration to become an entrepreneur, how he discovered digital fabrication, what manufacturers in East Africa are using his CNC machines to make, and how he balances the needs of investors and his company's cash flow while educating customers in a very new market.

www.proteqautomation.co.ke

Tech and art: The culture of digital art

The fast pace of technology is bleeding into every aspect of contemporary life, including emerging artists experimenting with digital technology trying to make sense of the surrounding world.

Both technology and art define and continue to reshape the world we live in. Re-imagining what we know as real or as a solid ground, pushes not only our opinions and understandings of nature to the limits, but with new inventions and experiments, both the mind and the body, the language, and the world itself seems to be making room for a different sphere and fresh rules.

Governed by the new aesthetics, the virtual, the scientific and the logic that is beyond belief, technology in art challenges our perceptions and that is what creativity and science are all about.

The change of artworks’ nature along with the shift in the public interaction and the reshaping of the museums and exhibition spaces are making more room today than ever before for some of the most amazing examples of digital art, kinetic pieces, and works that explore the internet and online existence.

Gearbox as a had contracts by artists to aid in their work as shown;

The Drums For Africa logo

Cutting leaves for an artistic mounted metal tree;

The Shofco Project

SHOFCO is an NGO based in a Nairobi slum - Kibera. Their main agenda is to empower local communities by providing social amenities and enterprise fund through community saving models.However, they charge a small fee for running water kiosks that they have built all over the slum.

The cash handling in the various Kiosks along with wastage of water due to spillage was a stumbling block hence SHOFCO in partnership with Safaricom, approached Gearbox for a tech solution.

Gearbox, through contracting department, designed a control panel that integrated cashless system that not only eliminates cash handling but also reduced wastage through accurate metering of dispensed water quantities.

The solar powered integrated service management system can dispense water in different volumes depending on the user’s request. The system also has ten USB charging ports which can only be accessed upon request and offers WIFI services. These services are however accessible to users with valid credited accounts.

Every registered user is assigned a unique bar-code ID which is applied in accessing the services as well as recharging the account. A bar code scanner is used in identifying the user. The system then uses this bar-code to retrieve all the information related to the user from the cloud storage. The system further checks if the user account is credited. 

Currently, the project has been piloted in SHOFCO headquarters,Kibera and will scale to other kiosks.

The cartoon tuned automated programmable school Bell

We are living in the world of automation where all the activities are getting automated through the use of advanced programmable controllers in home automation and industrial automation systems. An automatic school timer system reduces the effort needed to turn on or off an electric bell manually that gives alarm for certain intervals of time based on school timings. This automatic system is a micro-controller based project that uses a simple basic microcontroller, which makes this product affordable.

Oki Agaya Okwiri discovered his interest in building unique bells in 4th year when he built a simple bell for then Lavington Primary school during his volunteer work. After completing his bachelor’s in electrical and electronics engineering from Nairobi University, he got exposed to Gearbox that gave him the tools and resources to build better. With Nick Kimali, an electrical engineer, they built an automated programmable school bell for Kids Zone Educational Center at Kikuyu, Nairobi.

This automatic school bell timer system is designed using a basic microcontroller for managing time intervals. Read or Write memory is also necessary for storing bell timings, and it’s uploaded with melodious tunes for a ring tone (cartoon tunes) that is easily adaptable to the the kids.

In future, Oki will improve the system to provide for software and a device to give user flexibility in uploading their school timetable and offer display of information in a seven-segment display for a user interface purpose.

 

Creating the right environment for inventions to flourish

Creating the right environment for inventions to flourish

Creating the right environment for inventions to flourish

By Eng. Brenda Livoi, Mechanical Lead, Gearbox

The Global Innovation Index (GII), which measures growth in the multi-faceted dimensions of innovation, placed Kenya among the top 5 most innovative countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2017. In East Africa, Kenya was in the lead with a score of 31 points, followed by Tanzania (28), Rwanda (27), Uganda (27) and Burundi (21) according to the survey. Kenya’s advancements in FinTech, Telecoms, and other sectors, have been lauded across the continent and around the world. Yet to maintain this upward trajectory, a balanced regulatory framework and support from a diverse set of actors will be critical to eliminate the risk of slowing innovation.

In the fiscal year 2016/17, the Kenyan Government spent Sh3.5 billion (equivalent to 0.05 per cent of its gross domestic product or GDP) on research, science, technology and innovation combined. The adoption of the Science, Technology, and Innovation Act 2013 prioritises the development of science, technology and innovation through the Kenya National Innovation Agency, the National Research Fund (NRF), and the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation. The Act also provides that the Kenyan Treasury should allocate two per cent of the country’s GDP to the NRF, which is yet to become a reality.

Apart from funding, Kenyan entrepreneurs often lack dedicated resources that are critical for product design and development.

Many entrepreneurs in the country have an abundance of brilliant ideas, but lack the tools and space to design and make products, and the training and mentorship to advance their enterprises. For hardware entrepreneurs, it is especially difficult to develop polished prototypes that can attract external investment and drive business growth.

With an eye on this market gap, Gearbox, a centre for hardware prototyping, stepped in to provide entrepreneurs with the appropriate tools and training that will improve their creative journey. With a financial grant from the Autodesk Foundation and donated software from Autodesk, Gearbox can provide mechanical and electrical engineers and makers with the software and training they need to create - while saving them time and money.

Founded and facilitated by qualified engineers and certified trainers, Gearbox provides a space for individuals who are skilled but do not have access to the kind of machinery that they need to make their products. Members have access to welding equipment, 3D printers, CNC machines, laser cutters and more.

The rapid evolution of technology is disrupting almost every industry providing Kenyan entrepreneurs with significant benefits in terms of cost savings and improved design and development. In the world of engineering, makers can shave off half the time spent on analysis and decision-making by leveraging new technologies. Reliance on traditional project management tools often results in lost productivity. By understanding the unique needs of designers and engineers, Autodesk has built cloud collaboration tools geared for design and engineering projects.

Several start-ups addressing different societal needs are leveraging modern tools and space provided by Gearbox and are achieving success.

The EsVendo Project is a good example. Created by Kenyan social entrepreneur Esther Mwangi, it aims to increase women's access to low cost sanitary products through the introduction of custom vending machines for as little as ten shillings. The project targets rural and urban settlements that have limited access to shopping malls, hospitals, and schools and has created a local solution to an issue by leveraging specific hardware technology. In addition, EsVendo has integrated vending tools with mobile SMS technology to educate and inform customers, and lower the cost of sanitary towel delivery to women living in Kenyan slums.

For innovation to continue to flourish in Kenya, it is essential to create an environment that is conducive for entrepreneurs to make their ideas a reality. No single party can accomplish this objective alone. The public sector, private sector, and academia need to work together to cover existing gaps in physical resources, mentorship, and financing to keep fuelling the upward trajectory of innovation in the country.

Hardware solutions for Human-Wildlife conflict

Conflicts between people and wildlife currently rank amongst the main threats to conservation in Africa. In Kenya, for instance, with much of the wildlife living outside protected areas, one of the real challenges to conservation is how to enhance and sustain coexistence between people and wild animals.

Gearbox joined other stakeholders in a community conservation program at Amboseli that was aimed at giving solutions to Human Wildlife Conflict. In collaboration with Wildlife direct, we built two prototypes to support the cause, which were successfully tested during this period;

 Flashing lights - The flashing lights systems are motion activated lights that blink severally once a trespassing elephant approroaches it. This intimidates the elephants and keeps them away from peoples territories.

A chillifumer – Since chillies irritate elephants, providing an unpleasant experience, the chillifumer generates chili fumes that keep the elephants away without harm.

At Amboseli with students from Princeton's university, Columbian university, American university and Wildlife direct

Gearbox continues to offer hardware solutions to local problems.

Hackaton at Kenyatta University

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Gearbox is adding training to the membership and contracting services it provides. With the training came the hackathon idea to help spread word on the training and the courses we will be providing.

On 26th January 2018 we held our very first Hackathon at Kenyatta University, at the Kenyatta Business Innovation and Incubation Center Training room. With over 70 registrations for the hackathon, we had a turn out of 33 students. A brief introduction was given by our Head of Contracting Eng. William Maluki shortly after Eng. Nicholus Kimali talked in detail about the training and the type of courses we will be providing.

To kick off the hackathon and with no limitation on the type of projects they were to work on, students were put in groups of three.

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Students brainstorming

Students brainstorming

After about two hours presentations were made by the different groups and winners were announced. With an initial intention of providing four slots for sponsorship; two full scholarship and two partial, whereby the partially sponsored students would pay an administration fee of sh.15,000 instead of the full training fee of sh. 40,000 for students, we ended up giving nine slots! Two full sponsorships and seven partial sponsorships.

The full sponsorships were given to Sylvia Ngari and Fidel Makatia whereas the partial sponsorships were given to Cynthia Thuo, Mercelyne Kipngetich, Martin Wabende, Kiplimo Elijah, Tony Alvin, Ronald Kimutai and Jonah Ethan Mutamale.

The judges and the winners (full and partial scholarship) 

The judges and the winners (full and partial scholarship) 

Full scholarship winners Sylvia Ngari and Fidel Makatia

Full scholarship winners Sylvia Ngari and Fidel Makatia

Brenda Livoi on leading Kenya’s largest innovation hub

By Lindsay Samson, Design Indaba 

The Gearbox Mechanical Lead chats to us about the space and creating more space for women in the African tech sector.

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The number of technology hubs across Africa have more than doubled in less than a year, according to Quartz. One of the spaces that is adding to this advancement is Kenya’s Gearbox.

An initiative aimed at improving the ecosystem for hardware entrepreneurship in Kenya, Gearbox is one of the largest maker spaces in Eastern Africa.

Founded and facilitated by qualified engineers and certified trainers, it provides a space for individuals who are skilled but do not have access to the kind of machinery that they need in order to make their products.

Members have access to welding equipment, 3D printers, CNC machines, laser cutters and more. More than this though, Gearbox also offers a range of opportunities for training, mentorship, and networking while also hosting community forums and workshops in an effort to further their reach.

The mechanical lead at Gearbox is Brenda Livoi. She graduated in mechanical engineering from University of Nairobi and now occupies one of the top positions at Gearbox. Though it is a position that she tells me she derives immense fulfillment from, she remains one of the few women in this kind of leading role in the sector.

Still, things are improving, she says, citing the larger amount of women students who she has seen come into Gearbox and make their mark in the environment. “I think women have it in mind that they are trying to make it in a space that is not historically theirs, so they work extra hard and always give their best and are very hands on,” she adds. 

Take The Esvendo Project. Created by Kenyan social entrepreneur Esther Mwangi, it aims to increase women's access to low cost sanitary products through the introduction of custom vending machines for as little as a ten shilling coin.

One of numerous startups initiated at Gearbox, it is targeting rural and urban settlements that have limited access to shopping malls, hospitals and schools and has created a local solution to an issue through the leveraging of specific hardware technology.

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Located within an industrial area in Nairobi that is easily accessible, Livoi describes Gearbox as “a factory of factories.” An enormous, 23,000 square foot space, members are able to utilise the shared workspaces and machinery, while numerous companies of varying natures can rent permanent office spaces there as well. This creates a particularly unique ecosystem, wherein individuals and businesses can network, share their ideas and potentially create a meaningful commodity together.

Started by a group of local Kenyan “makers” and education professionals – including executive director Dr. Kamau Gachigi – Gearbox was created in response to the vast number of good ideas that they saw developed by students that simply ended up being discarded due to the lack of resources to further them.

“People have ideas,” says Livoi.

“In Africa, many countries are still developing but people still have ideas. But what they don’t have is a place where their ideas can be supported and nurtured and where they can delve further into the business, technology and marketing aspect of things.”

According to Livoi, when accepting new members, Gearbox looks at two things. First, they require a degree of self-motivation from those they admit and, secondly, they want individuals who – whether they possess previous training or not – are open to learning new ways of processing.

“The team is just here to support the makers and make sure that their goal or idea can come to fruition,” says Livoi. “It’s all about the idea and whether you are willing to put in the work to make it happen.”

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In an effort to further expand their reach toward the nation’s students, Gearbox launched the “Fab Academy” programme in early 2017. An extension of the Fab Labs programme – which began as an outreach project from MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms and has grown into a global network of more than 500 labs – the Fab Academy teaches principles and applications of digital fabrication. More importantly, it takes these teachings to those that can’t necessarily reach Gearbox's Nairobi location, increasing the general access to these lessons in innovation.

At the heart of Gearbox is the notion that knowledge sharing can bring about innovative solutions to the challenges that we as a continent face. By fostering a do-it-yourself spirit within a community, they’re making it possible for anyone to manufacture what they want to right here within our borders. For this reason, Livoi doesn’t think it will be very long before the term ‘made in Africa’ is applicable to traditionally imported goods, but she’s firm in her assertion that for this to happen we need to start believing in the potential of our people and putting our money where our mouths are.

“Sometimes we don’t believe our next door neighbour can produce what we need, preferring to keep importing from China," she explains. "Governments need to support local industries so that we aren’t so reliant on cheap imports, but if we don’t start believing in ourselves, it’s going to be very hard to convince outsiders to believe in us. Through training and providing a space for experimentation, we at Gearbox open peoples eyes and make it easier for them to believe that it actually is possible to do it on our own, easily and cheaply.”

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Diversity, Relevance, Globalism in the IoT

Reviewing ThingsConNBO

In a period where there is an estimation of 4.9 billion sensors connected to the Internet, the topic Internet of Things is bound to rise, and it did. On 8th December 2017, we held a conference in collaboration with Thingscon at Gearbox, the ThingsConNBO. 

By Simon Höher

On 8th December, we held ThingsCon Nairobi. It was a special event for ThingsCon as an initiative — but also for me personally, as we pushed for this to happen ever since the very first ThingsCon in 2014. Also, ThingsConNBO took place exactly one week after ThingsConAMS, which allowed me to continue the discussions that we had in Amsterdam — and get a clear understanding about the shared views, and the differences between the European and the African perspective, when it comes to building a responsible Internet of Things.

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On a general note, ThingsConNBO was one-day event, supported by Gearbox, a Nairobi-based maker space, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), and r0g agency. It featured a pretty diverse set of speakers and projects on stage: from Gabi Agustini from OLABI, São Paolo, to David Li from Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, to Stephen Kovacs from r0g Berlin, to many incredibly dedicated speakers and entrepreneurs from Africa, including Jeff Muthondo of BRCK, Nick Quintong of PayGo Energy, and  from South Sudan, now Uganda, and Abdulmalik Adam, Elizabeth Ondula from Kenya, all making for a throughly inspiring and fun event.

Toward a Responsible IoT

I held the opening keynote on perspectives “Toward a responsible IoT”, underlining the growing relevance of collectively understanding and discussing the things and systems we are building. This includes the pitfalls and challenges that come with it, namely Gadgetism, Vanity Products, Hype Circles, Security and Privacy concerns. As a perspective I highlighted the importance of 1. Purpose and Principles 2. Tools & Methods and 3. Openness & Diversity to address these challenges.

Lessons Learnt:

1. Growing Diversity

As Gabi highlighted in her opening, the role of diversity, inclusion, and openness cannot be overstated when building global networks (of things). This is not only true when it comes to deciding how we go about decision in design and manufacturing of IoT products, but also and maybe more importantly when deciding why, for whom, and by whom those products are built. I’m all the more happy, that with ThingsConNBO we managed to broaden our own circle of discussion a little bit, learning and involving voices from thoroughly different contexts and scenarios. And while this diversity might very well lead to conflict, inefficiencies and costs along the way, I wonder how we can go ahead and ensure that the benefits of clearly identifying and understanding specific problems of users and communities, surely outweighs these trade-offs. Applying and embracing open and participatory design practices can provide a robust way forward to address these challenges and include all stakeholders from step one.

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If anything, this helps us to do one thing:

2. Identifying Relevant problems

Gadgets, Vanity, and Innovation

As David Li pointed out, building things just doesn’t cut it anymore. Shenzhen’s ecosystem is way ahead of the world, making for 90% of the global manufacturing of electronic devices, with products and iterations churned out at every thinkable niche and alternation. It i a somewhat brute force way to innovation, that might herald actual results, its downsides are apparent — with vanity products and seemingly useless gadgets rolling from the belt.

Dr. Kamau Gachigi, Founder of Gearbox, pointed out, that what seems to be a Gadget (as in: and useless product) here does not mean to for it to be a Gadget elsewhere. Usefulness lies in the eye of the beholder and certainly the beholder in Africa is rather open to re-using tools and products at hand. 

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But talking about Gadgets, this is where we as designers, entrepreneurs, and strategist might come in — and where the power of diverse and open decision making processes comes to full play: If Shenzhen is the global work bench, it allows everyone else to focus on what really matters on the ground: identifying relevant and pressing problems that are worthy (and worthwhile) to be solved. This, in fact, seems to be one of the main take aways of ThingsCon Nairobi:

The basis for building a human-centered Internet of Things is to identify relevant problems.

Turns out, emerging markets, tend to be full of them:

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A particular take on those specific and highly relevant problems was provided by the team around Jaiksanda José and Abdulmalik Adam, who both fled from Juba, South Sudan, due to violence and unrest. They joined forces with Berlin-based r0g agency for open culture and designed the „Access to Skills and Knowledge Kit“ (#Asktoek), basically a portable maker space, that not only allows people in refugee camps and equally dire situations to proactively solve their own challenges. It also provides powerful and hands-on STEM education and is completely open itself. Its an inspiring project that adds a new level to „building a responsible IoT“. Applying Open Source principles to conflict settlement, peace and even state building seem incredibly challenging and promising at the same time, and I would love to dig deeper on that end.

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And #Askotek is not alone: products and companies like PayGo, allowing to micro-transactions for Gas due to a connected valve, and BRCK, a rugged, autonomous wifi-router to connect “the last mile” go in the same vein: while the actual hardware might not be built here, the problems are identified on the ground, and the solutions, too. This shift has powerful consequences.

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3. Hardware Globalization 2.0?

The growing need to identify problems worth solving in combination with a global manufacturing powerhouse, called Shenzhen, not only provides easy-as-ever starting grounds for hardware companies around the world. It also shifts the relevance of businesses toward a thorough understanding of problems in specific contexts. A human-centered business is one, that solves relevant problems on the ground — and make use all whenever resources are available to bring that solution to market, however global those solutions might be.

I was happy to join in quite a few discussion at and after the event to explore, what an innovation economy that de-coupled understanding and manufacturing could look like, for better or worse: As promising these opportunities might seem to local entrepreneurs, as dire the consequences of a re-vamped industrial globalization might be, from questionable trickle-down effects in the manufacturing side of things to vanity products and equally challenging competitive effects in communities around the globe.

I can’t wait to pursue these questions further with the truly global ThingsCon community and beyond. For the record, ThingsCon NBO was part 1 of a back-to-back event. Round 2 will happen in 2018 in Germany and continue these discussions. You should come and join us!