The WSH Kigali Makerspace – the newest of its kind in Rwanda – is a space of compelling contrasts.
Minimalist decor surrounds hi-tech computer systems, unvarnished wood backdrops state-of-the-art steel, and hanging bulbs bathe the room in a warm glow while an aquaponics stand bubbles away at the center, plants growing aquatically under a string of fluorescent lights. One gets the sense that here, its the future that meets the present.
A ‘makerspace’ is a collaborative environment where materials and tools are used to create and innovate products and prototypes.
Westerwelle Start-Up Haus (WSH) located a stone’s throw away from the Kigali Convention Center launched the WSH Kigali Makerspace, powered by Evonik Foundation, last week by inviting students, intellectuals, design professionals, entrepreneurs and innovators to the pioneering space.
Industry-level design tools like the CNC Milling machine – used to make airplanes, homes and high-end furniture – and 3D printers are housed alongside more traditional woodcutters and embroidery machines equipped to reproduce digital designs.
Carpentry, embroidery, sewing, 3-D printing and design, laser printing, software design and modeling, mechatronics, computing programming and machine learning, branding (including t-shirt and sticker-making), textile design and virtual reality, are just some of the tools and resources readily available at the Makerspace.
“You can make anything from here!” says Bertram “Bertie” Ford, Makerspace Manager and design engineer, his passion palpable.
“We want to help innovators and entrepreneurs realize their ideas,” he continued.
“But, first, we want to focus on teaching people to use the machines we have here so that they see the possibilities and full potential of what can be created in this space.”
WSH Kigali Makerspace will act as a micro-factory, innovation lab, as well as an educational center open to members of the public. Other works in progress: a “sunspace” to support agriculture, tech and renewable energy projects.
As a microfactory, the resident Makerspace design team – comprised of Bertie, Tina Basaninyange, an electrical engineer and Arnold Kayonga, computer science engineer – can create products and prototypes on any medium for entrepreneurs and start-ups, while industry-led thinking will support innovation within the greater Westerwelle Start-Up Haus community.
However, it is Makerspace’s educational function that makes Bertie’s grey eyes light up.
“We want to eventually become a research institute that provides PhD-level research and workshops, while collaborating with national and international institutions.”
Current collaborations include with the Rwanda Engineering Institute, University of Rwanda’s Creative Design program, and an upcoming agro-tech initiative with Akilah University; while partnerships with higher learning institutions in Bertie’s native land, the U.K, are in the cards as well.
In fact, the bubbling aquaponics at the center of the room is the result of a two-week workshop with Makerspace’s first class of students.
Based on the hydroponics system of growing plants without the need for soil, aquaponics is a system of aquaculture (water-based agriculture) that extracts the nutrients found in fish excrement to feed the growing aquatic plants in the form of water-dissolved fertilizer. The fish are raised and kept in tanks underneath, serving as an impromptu aquarium for the lab – and a potential, symbiotic, revenue stream for farmers world-wide.
The Makerspace team is now working on the next workshop to offer.
“So can I join?” I ask half-jokingly, a failed attempt to mask my growing curiosity and imagination, newly-aflame. Imagine the possibilities of this brave new world!
I expected these initiatives to be geared to students, design professionals or startups, my sense being that I was a few years (or generation) too late. I didn’t remember doing any of this in university.
“Anybody can join our workshops!” Bertie chimes in to my delight.
Incredible. This means that members of the public have access to exploring, discovering and learning how to use some of the latest design tools and software in the industry: to imagine, design, develop and innovate tangible prototypes and products.
Bertie shows me some of their ongoing projects, ranging from the whimsical to the game-changing: 3-D prosthetics, digitally-embroidered kitenge jackets, wooden box shelves made with laser (a fun internal project) and a hand-held machine that extracts nitrogen directly from the air to make fertilizer.
“So, fertilizer from air”? I ask, memories of high-school chemistry floating back in my mind, something about nitrogen in air and fertilizers. Bertie confirms this. Now, tell a regular Rwandan farmer he can make fertilizer out of thin air, and I suspect you may be accused of being a gicucu (mad person)… that is, until they are exposed to the possibilities.
In the words of sci-fi writer Aldous Huxley, we are in a Brave New World, where the human imagination is rapidly shedding its physical constraints thanks to the advancement of technology.
Creators can realize any idea, whether they know it or not.
A place like WSH Kigali Makerspace provides the first step: exploration and education that can lead to the realization of cutting-edge, home-grown solutions and products.
With a simple application, members of the public can participate in any one of Makerspace’s upcoming classes and learn how to design and develop projects using various tools in the hub.
Startups and entrepreneurs will be able to pitch their ideas, and if already skilled, access and use the hub for the duration of their product or prototype development, in consultation with the resident design team. All current and future members of the Westerwelle Start-Up Haus have automatic access to the space and its resources.
Applications for workshops will soon be made available to the public – like me, bookmark and watch this space.
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Olivia Ikilezi is a Rwandan writer, editor and producer based in Kigali. She publishes the Weekender and leads the multimedia/digital department at The New Times. A lover of art, music, film, books and travel, she is a self-described afro-futurist: one who “dares to invent the future” (Thomas Sankara).