Up&Ap: Dr Kamau Gachigi on setting up Gearbox to link scientists and the market   

There are people who give up on their undertaking whenever they come across an obstacle along their path. Then there are those who will do their best – and all it takes – to find their way around the obstacle and eventually ensure thet what they set out to do is achieved. And he belongs to this latter group. We’re here referring to Dr Kamau Gachigi (top), the former lecturer at the University of Nairobi who branched out to set up Gearbox, a facility which provides space for hardware entrepreneurs to create a pipeline of hardware-based businesses. Below are his thoughts and insights on various issues… 

  1. Who is Kamau Gachigi? Give us a background about your personal and professional life.

I am married with 2 lovely children and live in Nairobi. I did my undergraduate degree in materials science in the UK in 1988 and my doctorate in the US in Solid State Science (the engineering and material used). I made the decision to come back to Kenya in 1998 having lived in Japan for almost 3 years where I conducted research for TDK on materials for electronic components. I then taught materials science to electrical and mechanical engineering students at the University of Nairobi from 1999 to 2014, where part of my mandate was to lead the committee charged with setting up a Science and Technology Park – a real estate based development designed to facilitate for effective interactions between scientists, engineers business advisors and marketing experts etc. to develop technologies from more basic research done within the University.

Sadly, the bureaucracy became a key challenge and I decided to leave to set and run Gearbox, in partnership with local software hub called the iHub.

  1. You wear many hats. Apart from being a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, which other positions do you hold or which other projects (and initiatives) are you involved with?

I was a key consultant in the creation of a science curriculum for the Faculty of Arts and Science at the planned Aga Khan University in Arusha.

I also serve as Chairman of the Board of the National Industrial Training Authority, a semi-autonomous government authority, as well as being a member of the Consultative Advisory Group of the Partnership on Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology which falls under the African Union, with support from the World Bank.

(TOP: Dr Kamau Gachigi during a TED Talk in Tanzania in 2017. Photo: YouTube. BELOW: Dr Kamau hosting guests and explaining to them how Gearbox operates). 

I also serve on the Global Council of the Future of Production under the World Economic Forum whose role it is to assess the readiness of countries around the world for the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Gearbox prides itself as a window into the 4th Industrial for innovators and would-be inventors in Kenya. The 4IR is characterized by disruption of existing economies and businesses by way of the introduction of new technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), molecular biology etc.

  1. You’ve served as the Executive Director of Gearbox Kenya for a number of years. Tell us more about the organization and what informed the decision to set it up.

Gearbox is a non-profit space around which a supportive ecosystem for hardware entrepreneurs is provided so as to create a pipeline of hardware-based businesses. The ultimate projected capacity of Gearbox is to house a collection of machines for design and prototyping of all classes of materials, from metals to wood, plastics to electronics, concrete and ceramics, and more. The facilities are accessed by a wide variety of users including individual engineers and “makers”, SMEs and even established mulitnationals.

In the course of my teaching at the University of Nairobi for almost 15 years, I routinely witnessed students and faculty with impressive ideas which rarely see the light of day due to the lack of connections between them and the market place. The purpose of the Science and Technology Park at the University was to provide this ecosystem, but due to the slow pace of development I decided to set up Gearbox to achieve the same goal.

Because our clients require to make physical things, as opposed to the typical type of software-based technologies that Kenya as the Silicon Savanah is better known for, we identified the need for the creation of a working prototype as a key intervention to enable ideas to go to market. This makes it possible for innovators to test the market through ‘user experience” (UX) trials whereby they can test the reaction of people to their product, so that they can use the results to attract investors.

Gearbox has placed a collection of tools that are typically inaccessible to most innovators in our engineering space. The users pay a membership fee, much like they would in a gym, to access these machines. Those that are further along with their development can also sublet space from us in an incubator mode. We also offer course on technologies associated with the 4IR through Gearbox Academy using adaptive learning methodologies which allow students to engage in a flexible way.

(Kamau Gachigi – left – engages in chat with President Uhuru Kenyatta during a visit to the facility. On the right is Erik Hersman, the co-founder of iHub and BRCK. Photo: iHub).

  1. Kenya currently has innovation hubs and co-working spaces in most major urban centres. How different is the Gearbox model from what exists in these innovation hubs and co-working spaces like iHub, Nailab, LakeHub and @iLabAfrica?  

There is nobody else in Africa doing quite what GB is doing, especially because we offer access to our platform to all and sundry. We also target two broad types of people: engineers, people without an engineering background but with a talent for engineering, and people with need for a product who are willing to pay for its development. The second group is very interesting as it is people who can be introduced to 4IR based skills from a “high level” (meaning without going deep) and then be very productive employing the technologies to make products. These we call “makers”.

  1. On the website, it’s stated that Gearbox Kenya provides inventors and entreprenuers working from the facility with design spaces, capacity to develop and prototype ideas, provide Human Centered Development education, and develop value chain linkages which help innovators to build network and scale in bringing their products to market. Please explain, especially what you mean by ‘Human Centered Development education’.

It is not unusual for an innovator to develop a product that does not meet the needs of desires of the market. Quite often engineers get so absorbed by the technical side of their innovation that they neglect to find out what the user of their design wants. Take for example someone designing a cooking stove. The designer clearly needs to ensure that it functions correctly. But they should also be very concerned about where in the kitchen it should sit, what kind of kitchen space the demographic they are targeting uses, how many meals should be cooked at a go, how easily it is to connect to the energy source, how safe it is to use, and even what shape and colour it should be. These considerations make all the difference to success in the face of competition. Human (or user) centred design is making sure that you place the user at the heart of your design process. We teach innovators how to systematically do this, and here’s what that looks like:

  • Who are the users of a tool and how will they interact with it. It needs to help them reach their goal – who am I building this for? Unless you’re building a product for yourself, you have to start by thinking about your audience
  • Finding the right problem and solving it by talking to people and understanding the need. This takes time and patience.
  • Everything is a system and needs to work like a well-oiled machine. By this I mean there needs to be a bigger picture and what you want to achieve as well as the final result. Users should have a good user experience at all touch-points be it digitally or physically.
  • Testing your design decision and if it really fits a need – ‘need over ego’.
  1. Since it was set up, how many prototypes designed and developed from Gearbox Kenya have been turned into successful products and launched into the market?

Funding is a huge challenge for people to launch into the market. Government should come on board to facilitate more to local innovators and help in content promotion.

  1. Does the Gearbox Kenya team conduct outreach programmes to create awareness about the facility to other parts of the country and in order to attract potential inventors and tech entrepreneurs outside Nairobi?

Gearbox has been fortunate enough to be able to interact with a number of International organizations and gain not only insight but also secured funding the cause. We are in the process of rolling out a product called Gearbox MachineANI where we are now going out to the people. One will not need to come to our headquarters to enjoy the services of Gearbox, rather we will have satellite off-shoots that will cater for people even in rural areas.

Innovativeness does not respect geography, brilliant minds exist all over, so we recognize that the people we are targeting are not necessarily here in Nairobi alone; there are wonderful things happening outside Nairobi.

  1. How does Gearbox Kenya work with other government agencies (or institutions) like the Kenya Industrial Development Research Institute (KIRDI) to design and develop some of the prototypes?  

We partner with the University of Nairobi, the Technical University of Kenya, and we have MOUs with other institutes of learning from different parts of Kenya. Whilst we do not have a defined relationship with KIRDI, we know people there and interact with them as needed. This does not mean that we won’t develop formal relationships at some point in the future as we are patently aware of the importance of a healthy ecosystem that we are only one part of.

  1. You’ve been quoted as saying that: “Technology can and should be made by the people who live with the problems. This is a key driver for the existence of Gearbox, and this is one of the reasons I opened this hub…” In relation to this comment, what’s your thoughts on foreigners flying into the country and attempting to solve some of the pressing issues via technology from their home countries?

Africa’s population is not only growing faster than any other in the world, the rate of the growth of the middle class is also very high, which means we are becoming a significant market. This means that we are attracting the attention of increasingly more investors and businesses from other parts of the world, notably the US and Europe. Along with this is the increased attention Africa’s challenges are getting from people from outside the continent who are actively setting up companies presenting tech-based solutions to these problems. The typical start-up from outside the continent comes from a mature ecosystem which means they are better able to raise money than their equivalents from within the continent. Whilst at a high level this means such solutions are starting to have a positive impact on lives on the continent, many Africans in the tech-space sometimes feel as though the continent is undergoing a second colonization, i.e. that we’ll wake up a decade from now and find that all the new tech-based economy is owned.

  1. Apart from the fees paid by those using the facility to design and develop their products, where else does Gearbox Kenya draw its resources from?

Gearbox has been funded from the start primarily by The Lemelson Foundation based in the US. Besides them we also have been funded over the years by the Autodesk Fondation of Silicon Valley, and shorter-term funds from both GE Africa and the Philips Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Apart from that we’ve managed to build a steady income ourselves by contracting our services out to people in need of technical solutions to their problems, be it start-ups or mutli-nationals.

  1. What are your thoughts about the state of Kenya’s technical education and transition to the workplace? 

Gearbox Academy is where we think we can plug in this space. With the close relationship with Fab Lab network, we see a long-term relationship in a hub and spokes arrangement comprising of a network of Fab Labs which will provide rigorous training through Fab Academy to individuals, many of whom will eventually provide the pipeline for Gearbox’s SME clientele.

  1. In both your personal and professional life, who do you draw inspiration from and why?

My inspiration stems from my passion for the convergence of science and spirituality, and being a Christian, ultimately from Jesus. But apart from that incomparable standard, I draw great inspiration from both my parents in very different ways, and from Malcolm X for the deeply honest way in which he lived, and biologist Rupert Sheldrake for his amazing views on science.

  1. If you’re not doing what you’re doing now – that’s lecturing at UoN and heading Gearbox Kenya as well as other non-profit and volunteer bodies, what would you be engaged in as an alternative career choice?

I am no longer at the University of Nairobi but to answer your question, I would be a writer on science and spirituality. I have particular interest in the linkages between science and spirituality which I believe to be very evident. My doctorate was in Solid State Science at Penn State and I recall that while studying I would be blown away by the linkages that seemed (and continue to seem) so obvious, though I’ll admit not many of my colleagues would necessarily have agreed. Matters of spirituality will need to be addressed more boldly by academia, so as to meet the deep yearning evident especially amongst today’s youth everywhere. Sex, money, drugs – all these distractions do not yield fulfilment. That’s why I feel I need to write and add my voice to those of other opinion formers in these matters.

  1. Where would you like to see Gearbox Kenya in say the next 10 years in terms of expansion as well as successful prototypes launched into the market and the number of people impacted?

10 years, 10 countries, over 100 high-impact innovations through African-owned companies!

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