Nairobi's iHub seeks investment for new hardware hackspace, Gearbox

One of the stalwarts of the Kenyan tech scene wants to move beyond its focus on software and apps by offering hardware workspace for design and rapid prototyping.
Written by Adam Oxford, Contributor
Image: Maker Faire Africa under Creative Commons

iHub, the Kenyan tech hub which has been at the heart of the African app development scene, has announced that it is to open a new 'makerspace' within its Nairobi offices, to be called Gearbox.

The organisation says that it has received a donation of equipment from social enterprise Re:Char which includes CNC machines, generators and power tools, and it is hoping to find $50,000 investment for smaller equipment such as soldering stations and 3D printers before it opens its doors properly later in the year.

iHub co-founder Eric Hersman, who also helps to organise Maker Faire Africa, says that he hopes that Gearbox will help to attract a new audience to iHub.

"We called this Gearbox instead of 'the iHub Makerspace'," Hersman said, "because we wanted to gather in people from beyond the normal high-tech world. There's already a great group of people, generally revolving around the Robotics Group, who are heavily into the electronics side of things. Our goal is to get these guys mixing with more of the jua kali [people who make things on the side of the road or who work in mobile phone repair shops etc] sector."

Since it was founded in 2010, iHub has fostered a series of software companies and established itself as a key research institute for technology in Africa. Earlier this year, its founders turned to Kickstarter to raise money for its first serious hardware project: a ruggedised wireless router called BRCK. Writing on his blog, Hersman says that it was this experience which convinced him iHub needed a hardware workspace as well.

"When we were building out the BRCK," he said, "we found that we needed a polished space where we had access to some of the tools and equipment needed for higher-level electronics, while at the same time a place where we could mill out, or 3D print, early versions of the case. We soon found out that there were others creating robots, drones, TV devices and point of sale systems that also needed a place to do rapid testing of their ideas, but who didn’t have the tools themselves."

Hersman spoke of his desire to include a hardware prototyping space at iHub during a presentation to the Royal Geographic Society in the UK in 2011, and has often called for a matching of African ingenuity with low-cost modern tools to kickstart local manufacturing.

iHub first rose to prominence in 2008 when its founding members created the Ushahidi crowdmapping project to track post-election outbreaks of violence, and went on to be used to locate survivors of the Haitian earthquake in 2010. It subsequently helped to stimulate interest in other grassroots technology projects on the African continent, and similar projects have since appeared in Liberia, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania.

Hersman says that exact membership requirements for access to Gearbox haven't yet been decided, but the first part of the project — Gearbox: Heavy — should open its door this month.

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