Gearbox wants to be at heart of reawakening of Kenyan manufacturing

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In 1986, then Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi launched the Nyayo Car project, an ambitious move aimed at creating a Kenyan automobile manufacturing industry. Five prototype vehicles were eventually made, named Pioneer Nyayo Cars, attaining a speed of 120km/h. But, due to a lack of funds, the car never entered production.

Reminders of the bold project remain, however. You can still go and see the cars down at the Kenya Railways headquarters near the Nairobi central business district (CBD). The Nyayo Motor Corporation – founded in order to manufacture and sell the cars – would be renamed Numerical Machining Complex (NMC), a parastatal 49 per cent owned by the University of Nairobi and geared towards manufacturing metal parts for various local industries.

NMC, too, has fallen into disarray. The firm was identified as a major agency under the industrial pillar of Kenya’s economic blueprint, Vision 2030, but has drifted, with operations slowing down and orders being cancelled. With its decline, Kenya’s hopes of being an industrial nation have also lessened.

Dr Kamau Gachigi, director at the Gearbox makerspace in Nairobi, has an ambitious plan to get Kenyan manufacturing going again, with his hub at the centre of it. Disrupt Africa reported last week Gearbox, a non-profit that has sprung out of the iHub, is set to officially launch its hardware incubation programme next month, incubating five companies for up to three years.

Gearbox has been launched with the aim of creating a unique space for members to showcase innovative ideas and share skills, while also providing a platform for capacity building in line with the integration of hardware skills with the vast software expertise available in Kenya.

Gachigi wants to nurture a community of members working on projects in computer technology, industrial art, robotics and electronics, in incubating and accelerating innovations.

But his ambitions go beyond simply the space. His vision for Gearbox is for it to work alongside organisations such as NMC to offer the skills and expertise that can get Kenya building things again, creating jobs and cutting down on the costs of importing from countries such as China.

“My vision at Gearbox was to set up next to NMC to build an ecosystem for manufacture,” Gachigi told Disrupt Africa.

“We thought we’d complement each other much better than trying to do the same thing.”

It is not just alongside NMC that Gachigi feels Gearbox can make a difference. There are other areas too where the skills it helps develop could play a part. Since Kenya Polytechnic converted into the Technical University of Kenya, the organisation has suffered from a lack of engineers. Welders are being brought in from abroad.

“They have machines that they can’t use and they are just sitting there. We’ve been there, we’ve seen them, and we know how to work them,” Gachigi said.

At the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), there are also opportunities. The university is manufacturing laptops for the government’s laptops for schools programme, but is importing components from China, incurring sizeable duty cosys.

“If a company like JKUAT is going to have a Chinese company export computers and assemble them locally they will be charged a lot more,” Gachigi said, arguing that Gearbox could be well placed to allow the hardware – notably the printed circuit boards (PCBs) – to be manufactured in Kenya at a fraction of the cost.

“I’ve been pushing this for a while. I’m quite bullish about how things are unfolding right now,” he said.

There are reasons for this optimism. Gearbox has been in conversations with various government figures, and Gachigi is optimistic its arguments are being heard. The Kenyan government has policy that 30 per cent of procurements must be local, a fact Gearbox will look to take advantage of. He feels the Kenyan manufacturing industry is ripe for disruption.

“We do have a viable manufacturing sector but it only contributes between 11 and 14 per cent to GDP right now and it is kind of stagnant. It is controlled by multinationals and large family-owned companies. They don’t like to let others into it, there’s no community,” Gachigi said.

But a second-generation of these family-owned businesses are also beginning to understand what Gearbox is trying to do.

“We want to do low volume production and then have people go out and set up their own line,” he said.

Challenges remain, however.

“The cost of equipment is really high and the infrastructure is not good. The tax regime is really limiting,” Gachigi said.

Disrupt Africa reported in April Erik Hersman – the main behind the advent of Gearbox – had said prohibitive duties make it impossible for the local assembly of his BRCK router.

Hersman, who said legacy laws are also stopping the building of other types of hardware in Kenya, told the Connected East Africa conference the BRCK device was designed and engineered in Nairobi, but was assembled in the United States (US). Due to the fact it is then a complete device, the company can ship back to Nairobi duty free, compared to the high costs of local assembly.

Gachigi shares these concerns, but says Gearbox has made a request for duty waivers. Certain classifications are also now zero-rated.

“We’re learning more and more about how this is all working and the guys that make the policies are also learning,” he said.

“The good news is that we’re in conversation with them and they seem to be appreciative of the constraints.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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