Africa becoming Mecca of the mobile app universe, but why aren't we building physical electronic stuff?

A big set back on the hardware space is the lack of rapid prototyping facilities, but there's an upcoming space in Nairobi that could plug the gap

AFRICA is gaining traction in the global startup scene with innovation hubs and big investments springing up all over – at last count, more than half of African nations have at least one tech hub, according to the Word Bank, the total number hovering around 90.

In some corners of cities like Nairobi, Lagos and Accra, you can’t cross the street without running into some laptop-clutching young techie off trying to invent something.

Although software and especially, mobile apps, gets all the attention, hardware – the actual building of physical stuff – is less prominent in Africa’s tech space, but encouraging innovation in that sector could have massive spillover effects.

This was the focus of a panel discussion and showcase held in Nairobi late August, that explored the challenges of hardware, untapped opportunities, and what lies ahead in the Internet of Things space.

Although there is abundant talent in engineering and invention – a recent story from Uganda featured a boy who had built a life size Humvee and laptop from wood – there are few opportunities even for engineering students to invent anything original.

Kamau Gachigi, Executive Director of Gearbox,  Kenya’s first open makerspace, for design and rapid prototyping, was moderator of the panel. Formerly a lecturer at the University of Nairobi in mechanical and manufacturing engineering, Gachigi said that it struck him how many of his students were studying professional accounting courses alongside their undergraduate engineering degree.

“They were pursuing their CPA [certified public accountant] courses not because they wanted to, but because they thought it would make them more ‘marketable’,” Gachigi said.

“I don’t blame them. With an engineering degree, most of the jobs available in the blue-chip companies are in maintenance of industrial machines, which actually doesn’t need a degree.”

The only other option is to rise in through the ranks of management and leave actual engineering work behind, and for that, the CPA courses come in handy. “It’s either that, or academia,” he said.

The other big brake on the hardware space - apart from infrastructure issues like unreliable electricity -  is the lack of rapid prototyping facilities that would enable an inventor to quickly test out their models during the development process.

(Photo/Flickr/Erik Hersman)

“In the West, it’s fairly typical for a designer like me to finish a prototype of a circuit board for example, run down the road to the prototyping space, and in seven hours, have it on my desk in physical form,” said Reg Orton, chief technology officer at BRCK,  the rugged wireless internet router that has been getting big attention - and awards -  lately.

“But when we were designing BRCK, we had to have the prototype done in the US, there was simply no facility for that here in Kenya. That shoots up the cost of even a small $200, 7-hr job to $1,000 and 3 weeks,” said Orton.

Even more strikingly, it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference, says Karl Heinz, co-founder at AB3D, a company that creates 3D printers from e-waste.

“Our biggest headache, if you can believe it, is finding the tiny screws for internal circuitry,” said Heinz. “In Kenya, you can find big screws that are used in building and construction, but 3-5mm screws are literally impossible to find. You can imagine how much is slows us down if we have to import screws.”

But these challenges are what make initiatives like Gearbox in Nairobi so promising. Conceptualised as a merging of Kenya’s decades-old jua kali (artisan) industry with the five-year old vibrant software scene, Gearbox is a space to accelerate electronic manufacturing by providing ‘down-the-road’ rapid prototyping services.

Members have access to both design software tools, as well as equipment such as rapid prototyping equipment such as 3D printers, 3D scanners, laser cutters, industrial sewing machines and vinyl cutters.

“Whether you’re making a robotic arm, solar-tracker or automatic ugali cooker, we have the right set of equipment for you to work on in taking your innovative idea from conception, through design into several iterations until you get to the final working prototype,” the site’s website states.

What’s even more exciting is the possibility of merging of industrial manufacturing with ‘classic’ arts and crafts, to develop interactive electronics-based art.

The tools and equipment in the makerspace are designed not just for specialists, but anyone with an idea – akin to how word processor software makes it possible for anyone to type up and print a document, without needing to expertise on the technical internal workings of computers and printers.


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