If you go to Fablab Nairobi you will be surprised about the level of innovation in Kenya. Fablab Nairobi is part of international Fablab network which started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
What is a fab lab? Fab lab(fabrication laboratory) is a small-scale workshop or rapid prototyping center offering digital fabrication for individuals or small-sized companies. It is generally equipped with an array of flexible computer controlled tools and various materials, with the aim to make "almost anything". Fablabs have spread from inner-city Boston to rural India, from South Africa to the North of Norway.
In Fablab Nairobi one of the innovation projects is currently on trial. Three university students, Nicholas Nyakundi,John Ochoti and another partner, have built a a Wi-Fi amplifier capable of transmitting signals over 10km using wood and wire mesh. The idea was adapted from Afghanistan and refined by using open source software. For competing with other internet providers they bundle the wi-fi system, home automation and home security systems together as a package.
"This allows home owners to control various appliances, CCTV and alarm systems, swimming pools and generally monitor their homes while they are away using a smart phone or tablet," he said.
The three have founded Fabcom Co Ltd and so far has used up Ksh(Kenyan Shilling)150,000 ($16,600) in capital. They are now testing the technology in Mountain View Estate in Nairobi.
"Using the Fab Lab as our office has saved us huge cost. We can use its internet services at no cost as well as other shared services like secretarial and accounting service," said Mr Nyakundi.
Dr Gachigi is the head of Fab Lab Nairobi. He is excited about the concept that not only helps an innovator demonstrate his or her idea, but also helps out unworkable concepts which could get improved by other members.
The Fab Lab Nairobi was established three years ago with support from Prof Crispus Kiamba, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology. The ministry has big plan to create a national innovation system that it can assess the innovative ideas, assist with technical or funding support, develop prototypes for mass production and bring it to the market.
In Kenya young people are not willing to pitch their new ideas to potential investors because such ideas can often be stolen. Fab Lab therefore provides protection of intellectual property for innovators and academia. For example, the researchers at Upper Kabete Campus discovered a bacterium that could be used to replace inorganic fertilizers. The university patented it and licensed the technology to a fertilizer company for mass production. The university takes 60 per cent of intellectual property and can benefit from their inventions from commercializing the product.
"Fab Lab provides an integrated platform where we can provide the necessary training to people. For example, a mechanical engineer wants to know about electronics he can learn in a fablab. It is practical and our graduates can use it to solve problems in the real world," says Dr Gachigi.
Dr Gachigi adds that the Fab Lab is a very low-cost project because it only costs Ksh 8 million ($88,900) to set up.
"Just imagine the impact on the country, if we replicated this model in all universities. We are directly linked to MIT, they are interested in what we are doing. This kind of interaction is very healthy for the growth of our national innovation."
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