Maker Faire Africa 2010

So, Maker Faire 2010 has now been and gone – and it was such a wonderful way to begin winding up my time here and the DIY Kenya project!

Paul, Stefan and I all really enjoyed rubbing shoulders and swapping stories with our fellow makers (at the Faire and in the bars and breakfast rooms of the hotel where many of the makers also stayed) indeed, it was great meeting all those enthusiasts of African-born innovation who came to see the show.  After a quiet first day – due to the draw of the Constitution celebrations in nearby Uhuru Park – the second day of the faire was very, very busy with hundreds of visitors passing through.

The faire took place in the central green of the Nairobi University campus in the city centre.  The maker stalls were sited, much like a festival village, in white open-faced tents with pointed roofs.  The sky was overcast and a little grey but the mood of the faire was bright, colourful and celebratory – and there was innovation everywhere! 

Among the maker exhibits were machines for conservation of fuel or water (and so of special interest to me and the DIY Kenya project) labour-saving devices, fashion accessories, examples of self-sufficiency and income generation projects, home décor products. craft workshops and interactive art displays.  There were also several collaborative artworks and workshops taking place around the faire.  Check out these pics:


Bike-powered Maize husking machine with additional phone charger (Note phone on luggage rack)

Unicef internet barrel:

Norbet demonstrating his Solar powered traffic light system.

The ‘Fab-fi’ open-source system providing free wireless internet to all at Maker Faire 2010

Children display their avian artworks from the ‘Crafting For Peace’ project

Boda-boda bicycles, complete with modified suspension and phone-charging capabilities.

The hand-made ‘Innovation for Kenya’ banner which the Kwale students made for bloc hung in full visibility above the three tables that made up our Maker Faire stall.  On my left was the ‘Automated Water Winch’ – the collaborative project between Paul Granjon and the Mechanical Engineering students from Nairobi University; and to my right, Stefhan and the team from Nairobits who were assisting makers to get online and promote their work by helping them create free WordPress websites.  I was exhibiting the DIY Kenya project via a very visual digital presentation, displayed large on a 42 inch plasma TV.  

I had decided in Kwale that the prototypes from the Kwale projects were either too big (our bamboo rig), too damaged (you may recall the exploding Jiko?) or too rough too include in the exhibit and so I thought that videos and an eye-catching presentation would be enough to compensate.  During the first day of the fair however, I noticed that people were not instantly drawn to my large TV screen, indeed, nor were they drawn to any TV screen.  In fact, I found that I was having the same experience.  I circulated the fair two – maybe three times before realizing that I too had passed-by three other BIG plasma TV presentations on other stalls without even realising they were there!

In a faire consisting largely of interesting physical or handcrafted displays, a digital plasma TV looked a bit, well, a bit flat; less demanding, less immediate.  I took the decision to alter my stand, taking emphasis off the screen and introducing the original hand-drawn concept designs sketch sheets produced in Kwale. …And it worked!  People were instantly drawn directly to the detailed full-colour drawings displayed on my table and immediately began asking questions – and occasionally looked at the on-screen movie.  Incidentally, some of the drawings had originally been scanned and inserted into the on-screen presentation but it wasn’t until they were presented as originals that people really took note.  

There was a lot of interest in the DIY Kenya project come Day Two when the faire was busier.  Generally, people would come up and compliment the drawings and then ask what they were looking at (!).   I would describe the project and the collaborative design process.  A lot of people asked questions about the development of the concepts and when they were going to be put into production – which I took as a promising indication that the concepts were on the right track! 

I would often ask people to indicate their ‘favourite’ concept, to which the majority of people said the two Water Challenge concepts; Kwale Bamboo Guttering and Kwale Rain Mat, with the Fuel Press a close third place.  Many people also asked where they could get more information and contact details (why from this very blog of course!) and so left with a business card.

I was MOST delighted to have the company of the principal, Mary and five students from the Kwale Homeopathic College who had traveled to Nairobi to support the DIY Kenya project and to take in the delights of the faire.  When a reporting team visited our stand to conduct a ‘Maker Interview’ the girls were very happy to be involved and contributed to the video interview which will be uploaded to the Maker Faire website very soon.

Maker Faire Africa is also a competition and awards event, judged by the organising team and each project on display is considered for a prize.  There were many categories of award (e.g. awards for Industrial Design, Engineering, Re-appropriation of waste) and BLOC were awarded a prize for ‘Furthest Traveled’ which Paul, Steffan and I were happy to accept!  The award for ‘Best Use of Water’ was won by the students of Nairobi University with whom Paul had worked on the Automated Water Winch.


Paul Granjon of Bloc enjoys a demonstration of Alex’s Sisol-twining machine

Stefhan Caddick of Bloc assisting maker in building their own free WordPress websites

On Saturday evening, the organizers had arranged a gathering at the rather swanky ‘Galileo’ nightclub in Nairobi to give the Makers a chance to unwind, chat and get down!  Hospitality included a bus taxi from our Hotel and the first drink courtesy of Maker Faire Africa!  …and boy, did those guys and girls get down!

I am just about to set out for the day for my meetings with Practical Action, Design Kenya and Mike Wamama.  Update soon!

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Automated Water Winch operation in Maker Faire Africa

The Automated Water Winch Machine was transported to the grounds of Maker Faire Africa on friday morning, and we worked on debugging the program and operation all day, with punters showing lots of interest.

Automated Water Winch operating on Friday 27th August

I will upload more material on MFA 2010, which is now almost over. In a nutshell, it’s been an excellent event, with good contacts and a nice equatorial vibe!

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Nairobi Solar Machine update

Here are the pics I had no time to upload on thursday, progress on the Nairobi Solar Machine, from now on called The Automated Water Winch.

Blackboard sketch for Automated Water Winch, 23rd August 2010

From tuesday the students and I started to build the prototype.

Paul, James and Benson working on solar panel sun tracking system

Desmond and early frame for machine

Stefhan and Florence drilling

More solar panel tracking work in progress

Main entrance to University of Nairobi

Tents being prepared for Maker Faire Africa on University Green

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Makers Online

So, day one of Maker Faire Africa started with a light drizzle and a temperature of what I’m guessing would be about 15 degrees C, so much like being in Wales then…

The big news in Kenya today is the signing of Kenya’s new constitution. It seems like most of the population of Kenya are gathering just down the road in Uhuru Park for the ‘Promulgation’. Kenya’s previous constitution was concocted largely by their colonial masters and was signed in Lancaster House in London in 1947, but this time around it feels like the entire population have a real sense of ownership of the process and that this constitution has been imposed by the people onto the political system. Hamilton, from Nairobits told me that he’d got up at 5am to vote for the constitution only to find that the queue to vote already stretched round the block.

Of course, this is great for Kenya, but does mean that attendance at Maker Faire on Friday was expected to be low. So it’s good to see so many makers in attendance, and quite a lot of members of the public too!

I spent the morning talking to the staff and students from Nairobits with whom we’re collaborating on putting together simple websites for people who don’t have one already, and giving advice to those who do.

Glo Creations Textile sampleSo the first website has just launched, for Gloria Kamanzi Uwizera, who runs an organisation called Glo Creations in Rwanda, producing gorgeous hand made clothing, textiles and home decor. The website is at

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…just time for a quick update!

The Maker Faire starts tomorrow and since my last ‘blogging’, I have been busy preparing for the ‘bloc’ stand at Maker Faire Africa.  The DIY Kenya project will  presented via a large TV screen showcasing the project and the design process in a very visual way.  It incorporates video, some lovely photos and those lovely icons which the girls designed to embody the design challenges:


That said, it has been far too long since my last post so here’s a brief update on what’s been going on:


I have spent a lot of my time in Nairobi ‘networking’ (urgh, I prefer to say making friends!) with potential Kenya-based partners, or otherwise trying to generate interest in the DIY Kenya project so that we might instigate a follow-up exercise in the near future.  Much of this, I have attempted to do via email but I have come to appreciate that email correspondence in Kenya doesn’t command quite the same urgency as is my experience in the UK.  In fact, sending an email is tantamount to creating a sort of digital time capsule – something which may be opened long into the future whereby only a one-way dialogue is possible.  No, mobile telephoning is the only way to go if you need a prompt reply!

Kenya Today

Whilst in Kwale, I met a writer for the Kenya Today newspaper; a weekly paper with a focus on development.  I told her about the DIY Kenya project and we agreed it would make a great story and fit very much within the remit of her paper.  We have been in regular contact and I have been working on a few drafts for a story and so hopefully, DIY Kenya will have a piece in the Kenya Today newspaper very soon! 

I am really happy about this because the Kenya Today story will potentially generate a lot of interest for DIY Kenya across the country and, due to the nature of it’s readership, may even draw some potential follow-up partners or inspire similar collaborative activity for development projects.

IHub: Apps 4 Africa

Last week, I attended a 24_hour design challenge called ‘Apps4Africa’ which was held at the *iHub_ where I also got to meet with Erik Hershman, and Henry Barnor – two of the main protagonists of both IHub and the Maker Faire.

IHub is Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community; an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers, designers and researchers. 

Sited on the top floor of the Bishop Magua  building, the I hub space boasts some of the best views over the city, the fastest internet connection in all of Nairobi, fast data transfer, good coffee (courtesy of Pete, the resident barista champion) and is a wholly lovely place for people to meet amongst the soft, inviting sofas and bean-bags – or the distinctly serious-looking data chairs – and do great things. In fact, Ihub as been my ‘home away from home’ during much of this week!  A great place to work, connect – and chill!


Apps 4 Africa was a contest to highlight the talent of local developers in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania and to leverage the power of digital technology to make a better world. The challenge was to build the best digital tools to address community challenges in areas ranging from healthcare to education and government transparency to election monitoring.

Through my preparatory research for DIY Kenya I had a vague knowledge regarding the massive uptake – and importance thereof – of mobile communication and information systems across the African continent.  I had heard of how ‘apps’ could bring about profound social change and empowerment by simply ‘connecting’ people – connecting people with other people (networks); connecting people to information sources; connecting people with functionality – and so, I was especially curious to see what the design process of an ‘App’ might be and how this might run parallel to, or differ from the Product Design process.

Everyone in attendance at Apps4Africa was very attuned to a technical language that was quite alien to me (coding, php, j2me, software architecture etc etc.) and I found it quite difficult to engage.  Like the 24-hour Product Design Challenges I have previously attended, I was hoping that Apps4Africa might start with the attendants being arranged into teams and then each team being assigned a previously unseen design challenge.  In fact, the attendants were already familiar with the open brief which had been active for a few weeks and many had pre-conceived ideas of what their app might be.  Therefore the 24-hour ‘Apps4Africa’ challenge did not present a total-design-project within a tight deadline but rather provided an allotted time – a catalyst – for those in attendance to build their pre-conceived idea in the company of their peers.  Consequently, the conversations the attendants had at the ‘brainstorming’ stage of the challenge were less about human-centered design questions – those things I felt I could engage with – (“Who will benefit; How might people use this; What are the incentives) but more about software platforms, coding languages and stuff like that.

Nevertheless, it was a fascinating and educational experience for me.  Everybody there was lovely and they were all willing to describe their apps to me in ‘layman’s’ terms; highlighting the real-world benefits of their app, how one might interact with it and through what means (e.g. mobile text, wap, internet).  There were apps to provide expectant mothers with regular health information and a saving-plan toward the cost of hospital care; apps to help find a (reliable) taxi in busy Nairobi; apps to match people’s needs with people’s wants and apps to inform and map how Community Development Funds are being spent.

Design Kenya

I had heard about ‘Design Kenya’ through the SEE Project – a global Policy, Innovation & Design network sharing knowledge and experience in order to develop new thinking, disseminate good practices and influence local, regional and national policies for design and innovation in their countries.

Design Kenya are based at the School of Art & Design, University of Nairobi.  They are working to promote the role of Design in a policy framework that supports Kenya’s plan for development ‘Vision 2030’.  Design Kenya also recognize the importance of engaging with the ‘Jua Kali’ small scale manufacturing industries that account for over 70% of Kenya’s working population.  I have been in contact with Lilac Osanjo, Chairperson for Design Kenya, who was very interested in the DIY Kenya project and we have arranged to meet on Monday.  She also said that she may rope me in on some of their activities too!

Mike Wamama

Mike lives and works in Nairobi.  He works predominantly with youth groups living in slum areas of the city, running workshops to promote personal development and education through the arts.  He was interested in hearing about DIY Kenya project and we have been speaking about the possibility of a future collaboration, delivering design-led youth-group workshops in Kibera.  We were due to meet yesterday morning (Wednesday 25t Aug), incorporating a tour of the workshop centers in Kibera but I had to cancel due to a pretty violent a very sudden stomach bug.  I’m feeling much better today though and Mike and I have arranged to meet either at the Maker Faire or early next week.

United Nations

During my brief interim stay in Diani, I was given a handy lead to two UN organisations with offices in Naiobi, UNEP – United Nations Environmental Programme and UNV -United Nations Volunteers.

UNEP work to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.  I thought they might be interested in the DIY Kenya project and the environmental credentials of each of the projects which make use of sustainable, locally-soured materials.  They have graciously allowed some time for me to meet with them on Tuesday 31st August – my last day in Nairobi!

The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme is the UN organization that contributes to peace and development through volunteerism worldwide. The UNV have a broad remit and a wealth of experience and case studies in tackling development challenges through volunerism and so again, I thought they’d like to know what DIY Kenya have been doing!  Anyone over 25 can register as a UN Volunteer and contribute their professional skills to transform the pace and nature of development.

The UNV are based in Bonn, Germany but have operations here in Kenya.  I have tried email contact but an Out Of Office reply informs that the representative is on holiday and won’t be back ‘til Sept.  In the meantime, I have registered as a potential UNV Volunteer via this web-link:

Practical Action

Practical Action first came onto my radar thanks to a forwarded P.A. newsletter from Dr. Noel Thomas who was on the advisory/selection panel for DIY Kenya.

From the Practical Action website:

“Practical Action has a unique approach to development – we don’t start with technology, but with people. The tools may be simple or sophisticated – but to provide long-term, appropriate and practical answers, they must be firmly in the hands of local people: people who shape technology and control it for themselves.”

The DIY Kenya projects seemed to echo the ideals of Practical Action, particularly with regard to the collaborative design process we followed and the human-centered solutions we developed.  I figured they’d be interested in seeing what we achieved and I was keen to get their feedback.  Not least, Practical Action would make great partners for potential collaboration in the future.

Practical Action have branches in East Africa and I had managed to arrange a meeting with Margaret Rukwaro at the regional office which was scheduled for yesterday afternoon which, due to my aforementioned sickness, has now been moved to Monday (30th Aug) morning.



Finally, my searches for NGOs and Non-profit organizations working out of Nairobi led me to ‘Kickstart’ “- a non-profit organization that develops and markets new technologies in Africa. These low-cost technologies are bought by local entrepreneurs and used to establish highly profitable new small businesses. They create new jobs and wealth, enabling the poor to climb out of their poverty forever.”

The DIY Kenya project generated product concepts which could potentially be used to help generate small businesses, such as the ‘Kwale Fuel Press’.  Again, keen to get Kickstart’s feedback on the DIY Kenya projects – and to build links for potential future collaboration – we have a meeting set for Monday afternoon.




It hasn’t all been hard work though.  I have managed to fit in the odd excursion, the most wonderful being my visit to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphange during their daily lunchtime visitor sessions.

The David Sheldrick charity do a fantastic job caring for these orphaned elephants and work painstakingly hard to rehabilitate them for a life in the wild – one where the elephants can care for themselves and enjoy ‘normal’ social relationships with other elephants.


Thank you

As a ‘thank you’ to Erik and all at the IHub for letting me hang out all this week, I gave a small cash donation and have just handed around a box of Cadbury’s ‘Heroes’ and Mars ‘Celebrations to all the tech-heads! They really did make me feel right at home and the hub has been something of a salvation to one so sensitive to surroundings and dependant on internet access!

Huh, all rather long and verbose for a ‘quick update’!  Still, that always has been my style!  Catch you soon!


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Nairobi Solar machine update

I arrived in Nairobi on Sunday night. I brought with me 7 kilograms of kit: a 10 Watts solar panel with regulator, 12V battery and a selection of tools and electronic components.

On Monday I went to Nairobi University and found the local branch of the Fab Lab. Fab Labs develop the possibilities offered by the digitization of fabrication, leading to personal fabricators that will allow anyone to make almost anything, anywhere.

I was welcomed by Fab Lab director Kamau Gachigi, who introduced me to a team of undergraduate electronics and mechanical engineering students. I presented the idea of the Nairobi Solar Machine to the group. On day 1 we tried to define a machine to build in three days, possibly providing a solution to day to day situations encountered by Kenyan citizens. The suggestions were:

– a solar powered chaff cutter (rotary blades coupled to a mechanical feed used to break down vegetal matter for cattle food)

– an automated passion fruit picking robot that could recognise ripe fruit

– a matatu model robot (matatus are the local public transport minivans, that drive like lunatics and make their way through traffic with oversized horns)

– an electrically powered bucket hoist for extracting water from a water hole, with water level sensing capability.

We met early on day 2 and decided to go for the water hole option. Having no water hole and limited time, the construction of a scaled down model was adopted, with addition of a sound outputs and of a bucket tipping mechanism used to fill an external reservoir and of a solar tracking mobile platform for the solar panel. We split the group in 4 sub-groups, each dealing with a specific task: bucket hoist control, solar tracking, audio, mechanical construction. By the end of the day, the electronic modules (arduino based) were under way, as were the elements of the physical structure.

Today is day 3, 10.28 am. The students are working in a small office, I am going to go and check how they are doing. The frame that will hold the machine is being assembled by the carpentry workshop of the university. Stefhan Caddick is working on bucket design. There is good hope that something will be ready for the Maker Faire which starts on friday morning.
I will upload pics later if I find time.

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Maker Faire Approaches

View over Nairobi Bus Station from Hotel JaffersThe whole bloc team (Peter, Paul and I) have safely arrived in Nairobi now and are working furiously towards the opening of Maker Faire on 26th August. We met up at Hotel Jaffers last night to swap stories and discuss what still needs doing before MFA kicks off.

The hotel is located next to the Bus Station in Nairobi, the downside of which is that the matatus start (loudly) touting for business at 5am, right under the hotel. But the upsides are the view over the Bus Station and market, which feels, and at rush hour sounds, like the heart of the city. At rush hour the extremely orderly queues for buses home stretch for hundreds of yards around the edge of the square, although Peter tells me that they move quite quickly (you wait for ages then four buses come at once kind of thing).

The other upside is that directly underneath the hotel is a rabbit warren of alleys and arcades full of tiny stalls from which you can send emails, use the internet, get your shoes shined or photocopy your passport. However at least 60% of the stalls must be related in some way with mobile phones – there’s a plethora of stalls selling new handsets, pay as you go SIMS and lots of much more DIY activities such as unlocking handsets and fixing phones. These stalls are always busy, the tiny counters covered in phones in varying stages of being dismantled – DIY Kenya indeed.

The mobile phone is a huge industry in the country – 47.5% of the population own one according to Kenya Update and it would seem that access to mobile phones far outweighs access to computers and the internet . Before knuckling down to preparing for MFA, I went on a trip to the Maasai Mara National Park to see the spectacular wildebeest migration (or as our guide pronounced it, Wylde-e-beasties) and even out here, where water is carried for miles from the nearest source, the Maasai herd their cattle with a spear in one hand and mobile somewhere under their shuka (traditional, brightly coloured, often checked blanket). Electricity is intermittent across the countryside and lots of people have none at all, so I’d wondered how people, charge their phones. I spotted the answer on the trip back to Nairobi when I noticed tiny shops offering the service.

The mobile is used everyday for phone calls, SMS (the word ‘text’ seems to be used too but less often) as well as banking, transferring money and to a lesser extent, accessing the internet. Peter tells me that the students at the College used Facebook, but on their phone rather than a computer.

Before I left the UK I got an email from Hamilton, a Trainer and Designers at NairoBits Digital Design School, who had a similar plan for MFA – to help makers sell their wares online. We’re going to be meeting up over the next few days to put a plan in place to work together at MFA, so I’m fascinated to find out how he works with the (comparative to the UK) lack of access to both computers and the internet.

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‘Urban Africa’ David Adjaye at Design Museum, London

Just heard about this exhibit at the Design Museum in London.  Closing soon – last day 5th September:

‘Urban Africa’

“An epic act of homage to a continent”
Observer newspaper
One of the leading architects of his generation, David Adjaye has stepped out of his regular line of work to photograph and document key cities in Africa as part of an ongoing project to study new patterns of urbanism. Often regarded as a continent defined by underdevelopment, poverty, war and tourism, through this exhibition Adjaye presents Africa in a different light, examining the buildings and places which have a special resonance with his preoccupations as an architect.
This detailed survey reveals a unique snapshot of urban Africa today, documenting the nature of city life in a developing continent: a unique geo-cultural survey profiling the African city in a global context.

Check it out:

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‘DIY Kenya: In Transit’ – Less about design, more about riding the Night Train from Mombasa

I tell you, if you need to get from Mombasa to Nairobi and you have a bit of time to spare, you could do a lot worse than ride the night train. 

It is seriously slow going, at around 16 hours from the moment you get on at 6pm in Mombasa to getting off again at 10:30am the next day in Nairobi – the narrow, single track necessitates a slow pace and occasionally the train has to pull-off into a siding to allow another train to pass – but it is very reasonably priced and presents an altogether unique traveling experience.

For 3,660 Ksh – around 35 Euro – I rode first class which allowed me my own private cabin all decked-out in rather worn 1960’s GBR-style regalia , an evening meal and a breakfast (of sorts) in the dining car and unlike the airplanes, there was no 5,500 Ksh excess baggage penalty.  In fact, it seems you’re allowed as much baggage as you’re prepared to carry on with you!  Yes, I still have two and a half suitcases with me, even after leaving the craft and workshop materials with the Kwale girls!  I have re-filled the cases with some ‘Kwale’ crafts (rafta mats, bags and things) and the Bloc Maker Faire banner.


But hey, there’s more!  Apart from affording some wonderful thinking & reading space – plus the freedom to get up, walk around, sit, sleep, whatever – the train offers some spectacular views of the Kenyan landscapes and wildlife, as darn near good as any jeep safari.

This morning, seemingly, the only person awake; I emerged from my cabin at 6:30am and gazing (leaning) through an open carriage window I watched the sun come up, all blue and gold over a magnificent, un-spoilt and a seemingly uninhabited landscape.  The only sound being the gentle hum of the engine and the click-clack of train on track. 

Within an hour, looking through the same window, I spied Gazelles and Zebras by the Gazillion; all running about in the long grass as close as one could wish for any safari trip.  I’m sure if one looked keenly enough at the long grass and shady trees they’d likely see one of the ‘Big 5’ or perhaps a Wildebeest or Giraffe.


The train route passes by – indeed, has no doubt attracted – many villages and settlements along the trackside.  As the train trundles along in the cool calm of the morning, one can glimpse the staples of, what I have come to understand as typical rural Kenyan living and settlements: the reddish, stout-looking mud huts with thatched makuti roofs or those made from a patchwork of corrugated metal sheets; mamas sweeping their compound clean with a twig broom, chickens running manically about their feet; the men disappearing for the day in all directions, on foot, bicycle, motorbike or piling into pick-up trucks; pots simmering over wood fires cooking up the breakfast porridge of maize that will also provide the Ugali for tonight’s dinner; kids marching to school in bright, proud, pristine uniforms (School in August?!).  It’s all very beautiful and charming, especially to the ‘Muzungu’ visitor such as me – “no big deal” perhaps, to the people I have been watching.

Keeping in mind that this train makes just one journey in each direction per day, it is not surprising that when the train occasionally stops at a village, there is something of a ‘welcome party’.  Young children line the tracks and grin, wave, run and jump about and show off their ‘kung-fu’ moves to… well, no one in particular, but motion in the general direction of the carriages.  They’re just excited – like all kids of that age – to see a train pass by.  There are many men and women standing about too.  Some get on; others load 25kg sacks of maize or charcoal onto the train and then depart, the sacks, to be picked up by someone further down the line.  I did not see where along the train the sacks ended up being stowed but one assumes that just as with the Matatu mini-buses of the towns and cities, the sacks are simply placed at the feet of the (third-class) passengers wherever there is what one might otherwise call ‘leg-room’.

I didn’t see inside the third-class carriages.  I was told that at 600Ksh (6 Euro) a pop and with no sleeping quarters, third class can be more than slightly uncomfortable and overcrowded – dangerous even.  It was plain to see that the first class cabins were occupied almost exclusively by white tourists and not a single ‘Mazungu’ was riding in 3rd.  I was very thankful that I had the luxury of a bed, let alone a private cabin but I would’ve liked to have experienced the 3rd Class Carriage if only for a few hours.  To experience and by extension to maybe better understand another strand of everyday Keyan life; to better empathise with those passengers, who happened to be in this case, made up of typical, low-income Kenyan people.  The ‘Human Centered Design Toolkit’ by IDEO suggests that breakthrough design insights can come about when conducting such immersive field studies and attempting to empathise with the very people for whom you are designing.  On this occasion though, to tell you the truth, I was just too scared to venture that far down the train alone.  Scared of causing upset or embarrassment.  Scared because I was told it was dangerous…  I’d heard too many ‘scare stories’…  Ignorance is bliss!  ‘Knowledge’, it seems, can stifle discovery.

Between Mobasa and Nairobi, I have rode the long cramping 9-hour car journey and forked out for the ‘convenience’ of the – admittedly quicker – Kenya Airways but if I should have to make the journey again, the Kenya Railway will be my first thought.

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Tutaonana Kwale! Farewell Kwale!


"Time to move on!"

And so the DIY Kenya project is finished; for now at least.  Wow, it’s true, how quickly time passes when you’re having fun!I have always maintained that ‘DIY Kenya’ should not stop at the 2-3 week mark, but rather be the catalyst for long-term, collaborative activity and enquiry into design application in Kenya, for Kenya.     

Everyone here at Kwale Homeopathic College had a great time together during the project; I am confident of that!  We were united in the spirit of learning; of creativity; of wanting to make a positive change.  We made some interesting discoveries, shared some inspiring experiences; made some cool stuff. We also made some new friends and we all hope to work together in the near future and continue what we started!     



Recent activity

Since last I ‘blogged’ on the DIY Kenya site, we at Kwale have experienced some exciting successes, one or two let-downs, several untimely electrical blackouts and some exploding prototypes!     



‘Bloc’ Maker Faire Banner


OK – lets start with the wonderful banner which the girls designed and made to advertise bloc’s presence at the Maker Faire Africa next week in Nairobi.  Working over just a few days, the girls answered the call to produce a hand-made banner for bloc that embodied the ethos of the Maker Faire: a Celebration of African Innovation and Design.      

The whole class met to contribute ideas toward the design of the banner and once a concept had been agreed, a smaller group of around 10 students stepped-up to help acquire the materials and work on the painting and assembly.     



The word ‘bloc’ has been rendered with a collage of African textiles and textures; incorporating regional kangas, Maasai cloth, rafta weaving and beadwork.  There is also a touch of alchemy as the girls have created a bed of bright flowers hand-made from redundant plastic delivery sacks.  Some of the textiles were locally available but the paint and beads had to be bought in Mombassa.  The rafta weave was produced to order by a local ‘mama’ within the village.     

The girls were keen to include graphical icons to represent the three ‘DIY Kenya’ design challenges; Malaria, Water and Fuel.   We developed the ions as a group, following an impromptu workshop in graphic design.  The slogan ‘Innovation for Kenya’ was lifted from the anthem which the girls composed to mark the DIY Kenya project and which they performed on my arrival in Kwale (I must upload that video!).  The banner credits the “Students of the 4 Kenia School of Homeopathy” and “Peter Ku-ku” which is my Kwale name! 



‘Jiko Man’ iko wapi?!  – Prototyping the ‘Kwale Clay Jiko Stove’, ‘Kwale Fuel Press’ & ‘Kwale Mosquito Trap’.


Unfortunately, Jiko Man did not (could not?) return to complete the firing of the clay Jiko, mosquito trap and fuel press.  After a few days of waiting we hurriedly found another local guy who said he could do the job.     

Our new friend proceeded to build an impressive fire in and around the clay vessels using firewood and dry chippings gathered from the locality of the school.  After about 10 minutes I was called over to the burn-site by Suleileman the school gardener who explained, whilst pointing at the smouldering mound and trying hard not to laugh “…it was like a bomb!”        



Our Jiko had exploded during firing, shattering irreparably, though fortunately, without harming anyone.  Perhaps this was due to a fault with the design… or Jiko Man’s construction?  Shortly after the accident, I was informed that the traditional ‘Chungu’ clay vessels are normally packed in earth during firing to avert just such an outcome.   At this stage, we are not to know the true cause of the explosion.     

I was also later informed that, due to the lack of paying work in this area, as with much of rural Kenya, it was likely that the person who offered to fire our vessels (in exchange for a good few bob) was over-exaggerating his ability to successfully carry out the work as a way of securing the job as his.  An unfortunate but apparently, all too familiar occurrence in Kwale.    

The following pictures show the two failed clay prototypes of the Kwale Clay Jiko Stove next to a photo of the 1:1 scale card prototype.   


Our ‘Fuel Press’ and ‘Mosquito Trap’ survived the firing, though acquired a decidedly ‘rustic’ texture and patina in the process.  We were able to test the Mosquito Trap with some Palm Wine and more of the yeast/sugar/water solution (both of which are reputedly great for attracting mosquitoes) but so far, neither have succeeded as sufficient attractants for those pesky ‘mozzies’.  We discussed the need for further tests particularly in varying the quantities of the yeast, sugar and water in the attractant, as well as perhaps applying a small amount of heat to the liquid container as this may help generate more carbon fumes and attract more insects.     

We ran out of time before we could make and test the fuel made from banana peels.  The clay press did however survive some pretty brutal compression tests using loose earth.  We’re confident the banana fuel will work thanks to Joel Chaney’s research at the University of Nottingham and the wealth of banana trees in Kwale suggests that this is an ideal solution for alternative fuel in this area.  The compression tests suggest that the clay moulds will survive the punishment of repeated use although whether the clay mould will allow the pulped fuel mixture to be sufficiently formed and cleanly ejected without ‘sticking’, remains to be seen!    

The following pictures show some of the computer visuals which I created to communicate our design intent to the maker, alongside photos of the resulting clay prototypes made by ‘Jiko Man’.     

‘Kwale Fuel Press’     



 ‘Kwale Mosquito Trap’   





The Water Ran Red – Prototyping the ‘Kwale Bamboo Guttering’  



The girls bamboo guttering concept works!       

We built a 1:1 scale section of a typical ‘makuti’ roof with which to test the concept.  The bamboo that we had previously harvested (see earlier post Wednesday 28th July) was still ‘green’ and so, once we’d split it, within two days it had closed-in on itself making it useless for guttering.  With no time to sun-dry our own bamboo, we were lucky to find a local guy who was willing to sell us an enormous 14-foot, dried bamboo cane.     

The two handymen at the Homeopathy school, Naftali and Suleileman were kind enough to offer their tools and their skills in helping us to build the prototype.  The long bamboo cane was cut into required lengths and split in half with a machete, which was hammered down the length of each pole with a sturdy stick.      

With the Makuti roof built, attaching the bamboo guttering was a simple case of tying a stick (approximately 1 – 2 inch in diameter) to the beams that run at regular intervals down the pitch of the roof.  The end of the stick extends beyond the roof edge to provide a support for the bamboo which is affixed with twine, wire or natural Sesol string.  As with all guttering, the bamboo needed to be set at a slight angle to allow water to flow.      


To test the prototype, we simply turned the a ‘thumbed’ hose on it to simulate rainwater.  It seemed to work wonderfully with, at a guess, 90% of the water flowing fast down the roof, through the gutters and down-pipes and into our bucket.  Check out this video:     

The next day it was raining (although only very gently) and so I decided to make a second video to see if the guttering worked in ‘real world’ conditions.  I tracked the camera along the gutter pipe, following the slow drips of rain water down the tube, once again to the bucket  …but what’s this?!: 



One of the students had warned that the water would likely turn red after running off the Makuti roof.  Clearly, we now need to investigate a viable filration method to be used in conjunction with our bamboo guttering.  I imagine that such filtration would most likely take place as a post-process when water is being collected for use, but it could perhaps be something which is incorporated into the guttering system. 

The bamboo guttering concept still needs some development if it is to provide a viable system for rain harvesting.  Some issues we would like to investigate are;      

  • how one might filter the red contaminant from the water to allow safe drinking/washing;
  • how might people effectively grow, harvest and dry bamboo canes sufficient enough to be used for guttering;
  • whether harvested bees wax could be used as effective wood preserve;
  • how multiple bamboo canes may be joined to form longer poles (without simply staggering them);
  • how this system might be applied to corners and round roofs
  • whether the bamboo could be effectively used for either surface or subterranean channeling of water to a storage tank.



“Thanks Rolf!”  – Creating a Virtual Prototype of the ‘Kwale Rain Mat’



With one day left on the DIY Kenya project, ‘Water Group A’ only had a few rudimentary prototypes toward the ‘Kwale Rain Mat’ project.  These were essentially just pieces of paper, plastic sheet, card or dissected rafta mats illustrating possible folding mechanisms, but nothing much to look at.  With little time or materials left to produce a satisfactory physical model, I suggested that creating a ‘virtual prototype’ of the ‘Kwale Rain Mat’ might be a worthwhile exercise.  I imagined that a short film animation depicting the concept would work rather well.     

Initially, I began some test animations using some 3D CAD and animation software which I had on my laptop.  I soon decided however that the payout wouldn’t be worth the large amount of time it would take to produce the CAD model and so pondered alternatives.     

I decided to produce a lo-fi animation constructed from a series of hand-drawn ‘frames’ that would be scanned and then played back in sequence. The techniques I used to produce the animation were, I later realised, all harbored during my junior school days when I would sit in square-eyed worship of Rolf Harris and his TV show ‘Rolf’s Cartoon Club’.  Rolf would often use simple two-frame hand-drawn animations to enchanting effect and they were quick and relatively simple to produce.     

For any fellow fans of the ‘Cartoon Club’, I’m afraid I didn’t include my own Rolf-esque vocal sound effects in the animation!     

Check it out:    


The concept: Many houses in rural Kenya will have one or more mats woven from raftas.  These mats are commonly sited outside the house and used for sitting, especially when relaxing or taking food as a family, but are also used for drying maize and other food item in the sun.  Mats are often woven at home, but people also opt to buy them from markets.      

Kwale typically has two ‘rainy’ seasons per year but despite almost guaranteed water shortages during the dry seasons, the precious rain water is seldom harvested to full potential.      

The ‘Kwale Rain Mat’ is a specially woven, extra-large rafta mat with a water-resistant lining on the reverse and a series of sesol string loops stitched along the edge of the mat.      

The ‘Kwale Rain Mat’ can be used in the same way as a standard rafta mat (for sittng, drying maize etc) and because of it’s familiar material construction, does not look out of place within the compound.      

When rain begins, the ‘Kwale Rain Mat’ can be inverted and moved to flat ground, either directly within the compound or in the near locality.  A rope or sesol twine is passed through the loops around the edge of the mat to form a ‘snare’. As the rain falls, the plastic lining retains rainwater across a large area which then pools in the centre of the mat.      

The collected rainwater can then be harvested by pulling the free-end of the snare which closes the mat around the water, forming a convenient ‘bag’ or pouch for carrying the water.  The harvested rain water can then be transferred to a storage tank, a well or other vessel.      

They say inspiration can come from the most unexpected places. In deciding on a possible method for closing the ‘bag’ around the water, as well as looking at animal traps, I suggested to the students that we take influence from the illegal street sellers I had seen on the streets of Barcelona.  These guys display their goods on a blanket that with a single pull of a rope, can be quickly gathered – complete with all of their goods – into a shoulder bag which means they can make a speedy exit should the police arrive on the scene. 


There are of course, many unresolved aspects of this design such as the folding mechanism of the bag and the effectiveness of the ‘snare’, or whether the waterproof lining wouldn’t just tear along the ground when the mat is used rafta-side up.  As with all the projects, it represents a concept in the early stages of development.  A “what if…?” proposal – and we feel, rather a fitting one in terms of answering the design brief. 

hand-woven rafta details 




Evaluation and Project Close   

On Thursday evening (12th), I presented the collated works of all 5 five design groups to the entire class and we held a collective evaluation.  Also in attendance were the Principal and Director of the school; Mary and Marie.  As this was to be our ‘last session’, the students had been treated to cookies and crates of soda and there was more than a hint of a ‘party’ in the air.  As I put the finishing touches to my presentation, I could hear the students (on the opposite side of the compound) were making good use of the sound system and playing their collection of soul, hip-hop and Bongo music.      

The evaluation presentation started with a brief recap on the design process we had followed; from identifying local problems and setting the design challenge in the early days, through to solving problems with idea generation, design development and testing of prototypes.      

Next, I showed the latest project developments of the past few days, which largely outlined the development and testing of the prototypes (described earlier in this post).  As the last slide faded, the girls gave a huge cheer and awarded themselves a big round of applause.      

We then held a class discussion to evaluate the project and concluded that, even though each of the projects and prototypes required further development prior to any practical application, we were very proud of our achievements.  Not only had we generated a wide number of possible solutions to some fundamental local problems, including five developed ‘product’ concepts, we had also managed to explore solutions that could be freely (or very cheaply) appropriated via ‘open-source’ information-channels.  By extension, we now also shared a deeper appreciation for the core issues pertaining to each of the design challenges; information which will provide a foundation for any future enquiry, whether design-based or otherwise.      

Some lovely speeches followed from one of the student representatives and Marie, the director, thanking me for my work on the project and to extend a delightful invitation to return one day.  Very touching indeed and I do so hope to return!      

Oh dear – and once the evaluation session had well and truly finished, Mwomvumbo (a second-year student and my host during my Kinnango visit) took to the stage and spoke over an over-driven mic, instructing me to remain on stage whilst another girl fetched a ‘special gift’!  I soon found myself holding a very sweet card, a Kenyan music CD and a triangular package…  I had a pretty strong feeling of what was in it…!      

And so, for all those who missed the sight of me wearing a ‘Kanga’ the first time around, here it is, only this time, you also get to revel in the ritual humiliation that was my on-stage dancing!       

      An impromptu disco broke-out with many of the girls either taking the stage or dancing in the tiered seating of the lecture hall.  After a few songs, I decided to duck out and let the professionals take over as I watched from the sidelines.  Those girls really know how to dance!  They even had coordinated dance routines to their favourite songs!  I contributed a make-shift VJ/disco light effect by projecting the ‘Alchemy’ Media Player visualization through the projector, giving the room a real ‘night club’ look!       


We partied until the power went out around 10pm.  It is a regular occurrence here for the electricity board to cut out the power to the town.  They do it at least once a week, particularly on Thursdays.  In pitch blackness, we said our goodbyes (for the students were to leave for home early the next morning) and made our way back to our respective bunks.   

Sitting on a bench outside my accommodation by the light of a single candle and the night sky, I enjoyed a glass of wine from my store and reflected on the project.  I was still too excited to sleep.  The two dogs that keep guard over the compound at night – both fiercesome Maasai dogs – came and kept me in good company for a time.  I was glad they were on my side!  


I looked up and was delighted to see the African sky once again FULL of stars and the purple whisps of the MilkWay.  A friend reliably informed me it was Perseids nights and so a good night to gaze at the stars.  And, whilst reflecting on an enjoyable, innovative and educational few weeks, that’s exactly what I did. 

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