PASADENA, California — Just outside of Nairobi, Kenya, Kamau Gachigi is helping young Kenyans develop their ideas into physical reality through an innovative space called Gearbox. Gearbox is a highly advanced industrial lab in a 20,000-square-foot shared warehouse. It houses materials and equipment like 3D printers, laser cutting machines and electronic circuitry.
Gachigi told CNN in a 2019 interview that “the model that we apply is a little bit like a gym; $100 a month can allow you access every single day; $40 a month can allow you access two days a week.” The facilities also provide office space and computers. Additionally, there are classes to teach aspiring engineers, software designers, entrepreneurs and innovators to produce efficiently made and properly marketed products. With Gearbox, Gachigi is giving the power of production back to citizens while closing the gap between international and domestic production.
Fourth Industrial Revolution
Gachigi fears that Africa lags behind the rest of the world in regards to progress towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The 4IR refers to the integration of physical, digital and biological technologies with the natural world. Many prospering nations are prepared to handle and exploit this technological integration while developing nations struggle to make headway. In addition, Gachigi adds that African nations are steadfast on doubling Africa’s population in 2050. This means that the continent as a whole will need a stable economy to sustain this growth because “many of the jobs we know and are used to right now won’t exist in the future.”
Focusing on accessibility, Gearbox connects engineers to the 4IR with ease. It fosters independent contractors within a pay-as-you-go system. For example, a client who wanted 50 circuits at a low cost hired an electrical engineer at Gearbox. Instead of finding a manufacturer overseas, he was able to provide this small order with the help of the facility.
Even people without engineering experience can change their communities. In 2018, a Gearbox member named Esther sought to help girls in her school get access to tampons and menstrual pads. Esther then reached out to Gearbox to pilot a vending machine design that safely distributes single sanitized towels for a low cost. Titled The Esvendo Project, these vending machines now provide sanitary products for more than 18,000 women in Kenya.
Many of these small-yet-necessary inventions would not be possible through international corporations, which operate at different levels of the market and invest more in African Fintech (financial) start-ups. Fintech start-ups often follow models set by investors in Silicon Valley, who focus more on keeping revenue expanding in the context of American markets. Many African countries struggle to meet these expectations due to price sensitivity and poor infrastructure. Therefore, Gearbox provides the means for Kenyans around Nairobi to innovate as they please with few strings attached. This helps to foster social progress and future economic growth.
Power to the People
As investors put more money into the Fintech sector, growing investment in blockchain technology has made start-up property records, transactions and access to credit history more accessible. This means that international markets officially recognize more companies in the informal sector. As a result, they direct more investment towards the start-ups, which includes any entity that works out of Gearbox. An example of this occurred in February 2020, when Gearbox partnered with a commercial bank foundation to make greenhouses for an existing market in hydroponically grown food.
Instead of going through an international manufacturer, Gearbox is able to supply their independent engineers with contracts and income growth, paving the way for informal sector start-ups to transition into the formal sector. The facility has 20-foot storage containers that store manufacturing equipment like welding tools and various supplies. It also provides classes that teach skills like 3-D printing and other techniques that the informal sector struggles to find.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Gearbox in 2020 and complimented the company for its innovative scope. He emphasized that “the Internet and technology can give you the information, but the teachers are going to have to become guides in order to enable people to think creatively because when you think creatively, you come up with these types of inventions.”
In the midst of COVID-19, Gearbox stuck to its core values and provided for the communities around it. Peter Mbari, for example, created a contactless handwashing station with an automatic soap dispenser. It was a simple solution that many Kenyans did not have easy access to previously. At Gearbox, Peter created a production line after completing the design of his dispenser and is now able to ship out his product within 24 hours upon order.
Kamau Gachigi came a long way from working at the University of Nairobi. He expanded his company as a leader in the growth of the 4IR and gave many Kenyans the means to solve their everyday problems. Gachigi proclaimed that “Gearbox sees itself as adding value to people by teaching them to add value to things by building things that matter. I have a strong conviction that technology and entrepreneurship are two of the most powerful tools for building global prosperity and helping local entrepreneurs solve problems close to home is [the]key to that prosperity.”