“Making” Knowledge for Innovation and Development: Researching Kenyan Makerspaces

Kenya’s vibrant technology sector is known for its innovations in software. The successes of M-PESA, a widely used mobile money transfer platform, and Ushahidi, a global crowdsourcing mapping app, has drawn international attention to the Kenyan startup scene. Supporting the startup scene are a number of tech hubs, incubators, and accelerators.
Software, however, can only be as innovative as the hardware it runs on. A growing network of makerspaces are training Kenyan innovators in the knowledge and skills to manufacture disruptive hardware solutions. What is the story of makerspaces in Kenya? What supports are available for hardware-based innovators? How effective are these makerspaces at promoting innovation? What methods are innovators using to share and protect their ideas?

To answer these questions, Victor Nzomo and Jeremiah Baarbé are studying Kenyan makerspaces this summer, continuing Open AIR’s research on the Maker Movement. Victor is a Research Fellow at Open AIR’s East Africa hub at Strathmore University. Jeremiah is a Research Fellow at Open AIR’s North American hub, the University of Ottawa. Jeremiah has been visiting Nairobi as part of Open AIR’s New and Emerging Researcher Group’s (NERG) mobility program. The mobility program develops capacity between research hubs and enables cross-regional research.

A “makerspace” is a collective organization that maintains a workshop for individual tinkering, social learning, and group collaboration on creative and technical projects, generally among adults. This is a location in which creation occurs through interdisciplinary sharing of resources and knowledge. Put differently, a makerspace is a creative laboratory where people with ideas can get together with people who have the technical ability to make these ideas become a reality. A makerspace is often associated with fields such as engineering, computer science, graphic design and digital art. Primarily, although the physical space is important, it is the collaboration between individuals with various and distinct areas of knowledge, fostering a creative environment.

In a recently published Open AIR working paper, Erika Kraemer-Mbula and Chris Armstrong describe the formal and informal innovations happening in eight Gauteng, South Africa, maker collectives. The informal innovations they describe include organic innovations such as hobbyist tinkering, innovating out of necessity, and re-purposing / recycling. Early evidence suggests that Kenyan makerspaces, however, are more focused on prototyping formal innovations that startups can turn into hardware based businesses.

At present, we have found that Kenya hosts a total of 7 makerspaces. Four of these makerspaces are in Nairobi, one is located in Kisumu, and another three are in or around Mombasa. All the makerspaces are located in universities, manufacturing parks, community centres, and/or incubation hubs. They run on a variety of governance models, from NGO funded nonprofits to for-profit corporations. As highlighted by Eric Hersman, a Kenyan startup veteran, makerspaces continue the strong maker culture present across Africa by “meld[ing] some of the more recent high-tech advances with the already low-tech inventiveness found locally”.

While Kenyan makerspaces have many high-tech machines available, including CNC routers, laser engravers, 3D printers, and plasma cutters, many lack the skills and knowledge to design products and use these machines to bring their ideas to life. Building on the vibrant incubation scene, Kenyan makerspaces are helping to facilitate access to technical knowledge, supporting innovators to develop manufacturing start-ups, and/or work in high-tech industries. Open AIR’s research examines how the Maker Movement’s values of open and collaborative innovation play a role in the growth of disruptive manufacturing.
This post was originally posted on the Open AIR website here.

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