As many may know, Gearbox is a new community endeavour from BRCK, Ushahidi, the iHub, and Sanergy seeking to build a shared platform for innovation in hardware and manufacturing. To do so, Gearbox is bringing together engineers, entrepreneurs, designers, small businesses, multinationals, investors and policy makers around a community space equipped for rapid prototyping and low-volume production across a range of materials and processes, including wood, metal, plastics, composites, electronics, finishing, biotech, and more.

Examples of equipment to be found in Gearbox includes: 3-D Printers, Vacuum Former, 5-axis CNC Router, 3-axis CNC Milling Center, 3-axis CNC Router, Laser cutter, Vertical Mill Machine, Automated Pick and Place, RFID Access System, Punch Press, Benchtop CNC, Reflow oven, Powder Coating Set-up, Metcal Advanced Rework Package APR5000-DZ-ML, V275-S 4-Pack Inverter Rack Multi-Operator Welder – K2666-1, MULTI-WELD® 350 Multi-Operator Welder – K1735-1, Elektrabrake, manual Dr. Boy Injection Moulding Machine, among many others.

Currently located at Bishop Magua Centre on Ngong Road in Nairobi, Gearbox aims to acquire a space of about 20,000 square feet to be its permanent home. In this regard, Gearbox proposes to have a space similar to Autodesk’s Pier 9 and the TechShop, both in San Francisco, California. Such world-class fabrication facilities, particularly TechShop, may be likened to membership clubs not for the creme-de-la-creme but membership clubs for makers, artisans and tinkerers.

In a recent article, one of the Gearbox partners explained that the idea is to get innovators not only to write up some clever software (say for operating a robotic device), but also build hardware (a mechanical robot); and bring a working product to market. The article rightly notes that too often the focus of innovation and creativity in Africa is on a designer doing something with ‘kitenge’ cloth or making necklaces and bracelets from an otherwise neglected African seed; or mixing up some cosmetic. However rarely do we see anyone coming up with an original solution to a complex problem. We have never seen an African who makes the cloth for the designers, or one who processes the leather for the shoemakers, or indeed does both.

This reality hits home when one realises that there are so many clever mobile phone apps developed by Africans that receive plenty of coverage, but there’s not a single story about an African smartphone maker — because there is none. Therefore Gearbox proposes to create a platform for shared manufacturing.
Gearbox and its community of partners and stakeholders are acutely aware of the numerous challenges facing manufacturing in Kenya. Consider the case of BRCK: “The go anywhere, do anything, self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device” designed and prototyped in Nairobi, Kenya. It is essentially a mobile Internet router. It connects to the web in three ways: by plugging in a standard ethernet cable, by bridging with other Wi-Fi networks, or by accessing 3G or 4G data via a basic SIM card.

While designed in Kenya, BRCK is manufactured and assembled in the US because according to the creators of BRCK, manufacturing in Kenya is challenging due to considerable import taxes and time delays when bringing components into the country. This is a concern that arose during a recent stakeholders meeting organised by Gearbox in November 2014. When asked about the barriers to making new products in Kenya, almost all the stakeholders at the Gearbox meeting cited the regulatory and legal framework as being a major stumbling block to hardware innovation and entrepreneurship.

The main concern raised by Gearbox stakeholders was the numerous taxes, duties and other levies involved in the manufacturing process. Institutionalised corruption and unnecessary bureaucracy were widely complained of, with the government accused of not doing enough to create an enabling environment for makers and innovators. In the context of IP, it was noted that there was a lack of patent drafting skills among IP practitioners in addition to the low levels of IP awareness and enforcement in the country. In this regard, this blogger is reminded of the 2014 WIPO Study on the Informal Metalworking Sector in Kenya which shows that isolated workers not operating in clusters (eg. Kamukunji) were developing new and novel products and thus showed the most interest in protecting their intellectual property. However the Study shows that these isolated workers had pursued trademark and utility patent protections but expressed frustration with the appropriation process.

In light of Gearbox’s Triple Helix Approach (Government + Academia + Industry) to national innovation, CIPIT’s role will be to advise Gearbox and facilitate its research and training needs in all relevant aspects of intellectual property law. As a community-led endeavor, CIPIT hopes to lend its voice to help guide Gearbox in building a culture of openness, collaboration, and innovation every step of the way.