Shifting gears: Inside the hub placing Kenya on the engineering global map

Located within Avon Center on Enterprise Road in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, Kamau Gachigi sits as the executive director of Gearbox, a firm he founded nine years ago as a non-profit entity to address a glaring skills gap that then marred the country’s engineering trade.

Within the three-storey space, Dr Gachigi is, with the helping hands of two other management executives and at least seven members of the technical staff, giving engineering trainees an industry entry platform, coaching them on the finer details of their craftsmanship and catapulting them into the job market.

But how did it all begin?

“I was teaching engineering at the University of Nairobi and I realised we don’t have a national innovation system, a system that captures talent within a learning environment and directs it to industrial use, so I undertook to create a science and technology park on campus, akin to the famous Silicon Valley,” recalls Gachigi.

“My objective was to try to make it more possible for someone who has a product they can design locally for our market to succeed.”

Dr Gachigi would later start experiencing difficulties in operating the park model on campus due to lengthened bureaucracies whereby purchases of basic equipment would take unnecessarily long to get approval, as well as constrained timeframes in using the university facilities.

The Engineering Doctor partnered with innovation and incubation hub iHub to raise the funds needed to set up Gearbox and together with additional support from US-based The Lemelson Foundation. In the last nine years, the firm has today grown to attract remarkable interest and attention from renowned multinational tech giants.

In anticipation of the end of the funding from Lemelson, Gearbox unveiled commercial operations via two companies; Gearbox Europlacer and Machine Africa Network of Industries which acts as a bridge between Jua Kali artisans and professionally-trained engineers.

Among the multiple advanced machines within the Gearbox workshop is a Surface Mount Technology (SMT) line which has the capacity to place 14,000 circuit components per hour on a board in an automated fashion.

Gearbox Academy

Domiciled within the facility, Dr Gachigi has set up an academy that he sees as the best link between continuing engineering students and industrial application.

The training programmes are segmented into various stages stretching from beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert levels with an average of three months of engagement in each level.

The training costs range between Sh40,000 to Sh80,000 depending on the learning level.

“This is the most fundamental way that the engineering community interacts with us. Secondly, there are people who know about us and when they get jobs they come here and contract our space to deliver on those jobs,” he states.

Bagging major deals

In November last year, Gearbox bagged a contract from UK-based charity firm Raspberry Pi Foundation to produce circuit boards and computer chips on the latter’s behalf, consequently raising the country’s profile as a manufacturing hub.

The deal was set to enhance access and ease the cost of Raspberry products in the local market, marking a major opening for the Kenyan manufacturer as it would go ahead to ink another pact with an undisclosed US company in addition to a number of other African firms.

“From the time that story began last year, when we signed our first major deal, there has been quite a good response from the market. One is that it has given us visibility, and two, it has given us confidence as we are able to match the same standards that are out there,” states the firm’s manufacturing lead Njung’e Mwaura.

Gearbox has set its sights on expanding to rural settings, with Dr Gachigi divulging that he is building satellite maker spaces in countryside areas where artisans such as welders and carpenters, among others, can be able to access better equipment and produce more pieces.

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