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CEO Weekends: Kenya’s Erik Hersman On The Future Of Hardware Startups In Africa

brck2Africa imports most of its hardware, from phones to basic electronics like DVD players and appliances. Local manufacturing of computers and big machinery is even more like a dream.
However, a team of passionate Kenyans led by Erik Hersman, co-founder iHub and Ushahidi and a blogger at AfriGadget and WhiteAfrican is set to end this.
TechMoran talked to Hersman on the need for locally made hardware solutions in the country and the continent at large, and here is what he told us n the future of Hardware startups in Africa.

What moved you to think hardware?

I’ve thought about hardware for a long time.  I started AfriGadget back in 2006, and have been a founding organizer of Maker Faire Africa since 2009 (which has taken place in Ghana, Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria).  We’ve all wanted to do more with the electronics and robotics sides of tech in the community for a while, but it wasn’t until we started building out the BRCK a year ago that I realized just how badly we needed the resources and equipment here in Nairobi if we wanted to really get things moving on the hardware front.


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Where will it be based and who is it open to?

The idea is that we have a Gearbox “Heavy” and a Gearbox “Light”.  Light will be in the building with the iHub, it will focus on electronics and plastic – think Arduino kits, Rasberry Pis, 3d printers and laser cutters.  Heavy will be based outside of the iHub, as it will have heavy equipment such as welding machines, metal lathes and a plasma cutter.

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It will be a paid membership based space for everyone, where you have to go through training for certification to work on any machine.  Once you’ve done that, you’ll have access to the tools and equipment and will only be responsible for your own raw materials and components.


gearbox2How will Gearbox work?

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It’s a “makerspace”, so think of a big room full of equipment that allows you to do rapid prototyping of your new idea – whether that’s a new case for your phone or a new product idea that you want to take to market.  You then jump on the machine you need to build it, and do so.

For Gearbox to work, we’ll need everyone to pitch in and work with each other, helping new people get up to speed on machines and teaching each other better techniques for getting stuff done.  My hope is that we’ll have a lot of people who spend time with one another, creating community of hardware enthusiasts.


Will it be open like the iHub space or will be accelerator-like

It’ll be open, but it will be paid membership in order for us to cover the bills on the space.  I’m not sure of the pricing yet, but likely somewhere in the 1,000 ksh/month range.


Does Africa need hardware solutions?

Of course we need hardware solutions – we use them already everyday.  What you should be asking is “why are we not the ones making our own hardware solutions yet?”  The answer to that is more complex, mixing the government’s short-sighted focus on import duty for components we can’t even make here, to under-resourced schools and technical colleges.  It’s a mixture where we lack rapid prototyping facilities and where hardware entrepreneurs don’t have clear channels to grow into fabrication and manufacturing at scale.

Gearbox can’t solve all of those problems, nor are we trying to – we’re just looking at the first bit – rapid prototyping.  Instead, we’re building a resource where those interested in working in the worlds between electrical engineering, software development and jua kali craftsmanship meet.  I think there are a world of amazing products waiting to be uncovered within Kenya as we start to merge these different areas of “maker” focus.


Are techies in the country/ continent ready to hack hardware and make things?

Yes, they already are.  We made the BRCK at Ushahidi.  Kahenya is making a device for streaming TV in homes.  Others are making point of sale machines, wildlife tracking drones, remotely triggered (via text message) ugali machines, and home security systems.  More will come, it’s already in our blood.
Hardware will need costly materials are the youths (and their partners) ready to sacrifice?

Not all materials are costly, but you’re right in that there is some cost to raw materials.  Are people ready to invest in their ideas?  I believe so, at least the ones we want to be part of Gearbox will be.


Do we have enough funding for hardware?

Not yet.  To date we’ve been able to get a good portion of the Gearbox Heavy equipment.  However, we’re still looking for some funding to get the equipment for Gearbox Light together.  Purchasing the equipment, then getting it shipped to Kenya and through customs, will cost us about $50k to get started.


Are Kenyan taxes fair to hardware builders? (Putting in mind that we import most of our materials)

No, not at all.  I covered this earlier, but there are some ridiculous levies on imports of raw materials and electronic components that we can’t even find or make here.  This doesn’t make any sense and is an indication of the Kenyan government’s short-term thinking on revenues.  Is it better to make a little money now off of import duties, or a lot of money later off of successful companies?


Skills gap.What are you gonna do to solve this? Any plans for an exchange program among hardware hubs say Gearbox with HAXL8R?

People in the community who are experts on machines will train each other.  We have them here already, and we do plan to have visiting professionals spend time giving workshops on particular techniques, knowledge of proper materials and other educational needs within the community of users.  Really, this type of place only works when those in the community who are advanced openly help those who need it.  This “pay it forward” mentality is what makes it all work.

On the exchange program thought, we’re very open to this idea and we all benefit when we mix with other communities around the world.


What are the challenges (present/expect) and expected towards Gearbox success?

Initial challenges are equipment funding and space.  Both can be solved fairly easily with the right partners.  Long-term, the challenges will be on the community, making sure it’s an open place for learning where you’re helped and nurtured to grow, not made to feel stupid because you’re not knowledgeable yet about something.


How will you finance it?

No idea yet, but we’re looking for partners who can help us solve the initial cost problem for equipment.  Long-term financing will work out, as it has with the iHub.


Market, is Kenya ready to buy Kenyan (hardware)?

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Sam Wakoba
Sam Wakoba
Taking you on tour through Africa's tech and business ecosystem, one story at a time since 2010! Based out of Nairobi, Kenya, Sam is the founder and managing director of Moran Media, which runs, various other digital platforms and a startup incubation hub for Kenya's youthful entrepreneurs. Drop me a mail at [email protected]

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