The Gearbox Academy: Kenya’s Institute that actualizes engineering dreams
You are an engineer, or not, with an idea of an engineering hardware product which if actualised would impact millions of lives. But there is a problem. In order to for this idea to come to fruition, you need to design it, create a prototype, then figure out how to have it manufactured. You probably may take care of designing it, and that’s it. You can’t bring yourself to create a prototype because you can’t afford the cost of the materials needed. So, just like many other engineers in your shoes, you give up. You send your design to dust collection in some shelve. To solve this problem, Gearbox Academy was introduced.
The problem described above is one almost every engineering student experiences, a problem that was once noticed by Kamau Gachigi. As pointed out by this CNN’s special edition article of 2019, Eng. Gachigi was teaching engineering at the University of Nairobi when he noticed that majority of the engineering students and faculty members could not build prototypes of the ideas they had for lack of materials and equipment. With this realization, Eng. Gachigi fabricated a laboratory at the university that had the necessary equipment for building almost any engineering prototype. The laboratory was made accessible to anyone who needed to use it. It was the success of the laboratory at the University of Nairobi that led Eng. Kamau Gachigi to start the Gearbox Academy.
According to the website of the academy, Gearbox Academy is “a training institution that focuses on imparting relevant hands-on skills through human-centred Design (HCD) and Industry 4.0 technologies, to promote digital literacy in engineering fields”. As an institute that runs on a hub-centric culture, Gearbox Academy admits anyone interested in taking advantage of its resources through a gym like membership, where for $100 (roughly shs 10 thousand), a member of the academy can access the hub for one month. Alternatively, with $40 (roughly shs 4 thousand), one can register to access the academy’s resources for two days every week for one month.
Since its inception, the Gearbox academy has registered remarkable successes, two of which are worth mentioning. You may remember Roy Allela, the Kenyan inventor who came up with the sign language translator he dubbed Sign-IO. Sign-IO is a smart glove system that translates sign language into audible language. A smartphone app is able to predict the message passed through the sign language then vocalise that message to someone unfamiliar with the sign language. With Sign-IO, those that are speech impaired are no longer required to walk around with human translators. The smart gloves for Sign-IO were developed at Gearbox Academy.
As mentioned in the opening of this article, one does not need to be an engineer in order to benefit from the engineering team and equipment being offered by the Gearbox Academy. One such non-engineering beneficiary was Esther Mwangi, an entrepreneur who was able to use Gearbox to develop EsVendo, a sanitary pad vending machine meant for schools.
The success of Gearbox Academy has not only earned it global recognition, but also attracted partners such as Europacer. Europacer partnered with Gearbox Academy so that businesses in Kenya and elsewhere can have their circuit boards manufactured in Kenya as opposed to China or India. These partnerships are enabling Gearbox Academy to expand beyond Kenya, so that other countries in Africa can also have the ability to localise manufacturing, even in rural areas.
Gearbox has also partnered with the European Union for the purpose of ensuring as many Kenyans as possible gain access to Gearbox resources. This partnership has seen European Union sponsor candidates for a 2 months training scholarship, the training of which will be provided by the Gearbox academy. Those interested in the scholarship were given an opportunity to apply and tonnes of Kenyan students made the applications. 26 successful applicants will be selected for the fully EU sponsored scholarship.