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[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 sustainable development, 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 governments to 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.The academy trains students to master topics such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, programming and human-centred design approaches, among others.
The trainers are drawn from within the workforce of Gearbox and industry experts with knowledge of various fields that subscribe to Gearbox’s work.
Last year, engineering students from the University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Technical University of Kenya and Kenyatta University began attending training sessions at the academy.
The academy also provides avenues for students to collaborate internationally and co-create hardware. For instance, early this year, Nairobi Design Institute hosted an event where students drawn from Kenyan universities who were undergoing training at the Gearbox academy interacted with students from UK universities to co-create hardware technologies. Gearbox also trains students from mid-level colleges and polytechnics and gives them access to equipment to learn practically.
Gachigi challenges young people in Africa to make use of the internet in researching and adding knowledge to understand the ecosystem of the ideas that they have as this would help in developing greater innovations that can improve livelihoods.
“But the passion and working hard really matter in order to be successful in entrepreneurship in the field you are venturing in,” he told SciDev.Net.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.