Q: Please tell us about yourself, educational background and the career path that led you to Foondi Workshops. Have you encountered any obstacles on your path to pursuing your studies and if so, how have you generally handled your challenges and adversity?
Wanyiri: My name is Juliet Wanyiri. I am a native Kenyan. Having studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Nairobi, I got exposed to the FabLab (Fabrication Lab) that was based at the School of Engineering. This opened the opportunity for me to learn about fabrication, robotics and CNC milling which greatly influenced my later work.
In 2012, I got selected as a participant for the International Development Design Summit (IDDS) in Brazil organized by the MIT Design Lab (D-Lab). This exploratory and hands-on design experience involved bringing in together designers & engineers from around the world to collaboratively create solutions with local communities in Brazil. From the experience in Brazil, a country with similar infrastructural and social challenges as well as opportunities as to those found in Kenya, this opportunity opened up to me the potential for technology based skills sharing and capacity building. From here, the idea of running collaborative tech and design workshops through Foondi was born.
The challenges I and my colleagues encountered were getting placement in engineering firms as well as the opportunity to build up on innovative ideas in an R&D space and an exploratory setting. It is currently a challenge nurturing innovative hardware ideas in Nairobi as this is a nascent field for electronics business ventures. These challenges are presenting in getting access to the right equipment and resources to develop innovative ideas in addition to large space manufacturing products that come out of this process.
Q: Tell us about Foondi Workshops: What is Foondi Workshops? Why was it created and by whom? What programs and services do you offer and who do you serve?
Wanyiri: Foondi Workshops is a platform for problem setting, designing and prototyping entrepreneurial-based ventures. Foondi is based in East Africa and uses collaborative design workshops with the aim of capacity building and skills sharing. The vision Foondi holds strongly is to nurture a group of young innovators in Africa working on building solutions targeting emerging markets and under-served communities in Africa.
Q: Can you please elaborate on three of Foondi Workshops’ initiatives: (1) the Wood block (Boda boda) phone charger workshop in Uganda; (2) the Bici-blender workshop in Kenya; and (3) the Design thinking workshop in Burundi.
Wanyiri: These three design exercises was each curated to match the each content - in terms of location, local challenges, opportunities and resources. This way, there would be a sense of appropriately developed ideas and a sustainability model.
1) Wood block phone charger - leveraged the locally and easily available boda boda (taxi motorcycles) in Uganda to tap into the opportunity of charging cell phones and in this way, solve the problem of access to electricity in remote areas. The solution was built in collaboration with students from Watoto training institute who had knowledge on metalwork, woodwork, car repair and electronics.
2) The bicycle- blender exercise was aimed at teaching participants how pedal powered technology can be used as an alternative to electrically powered devices. It also was design to give participants a hands-on experience on using design and engineering to build a solution to the challenge of automation in areas that do not have access to electricity
3) The design thinking workshop run in collaboration with Akilah Insitute in Bujumbura, Burundi. The workshop, aimed at teaching the precepts of design thinking & human-centered design, involved an interactive workshop on designing a better commute for the students.
Q: Are youth, technology and entrepreneurship a ‘winning combination’, in your estimation?
Wanyiri: In line with the goals at Foondi, capacity building in both technology and entrepreneurship is integral for not only developing innovative ideas, but creating channels for these products and services to reach the larger market and this way solve local challenges.
Foondi strongly believes in the idea of co-creation: the concept that it is better to provide communities with the skills and tools to become innovators and develop new technologies themselves rather than to simply providing the technologies. This is because the capacity for innovation and creativity is critical for long-term sustainable improvements in the quality of life in a community. It is our goal to demonstrate a model where a user-based community of active, creative designers can invent, innovate and inspire each other to create new technologies.
Given that entrepreneurship is the limiting factor, the collaborative design workshops are aimed at teaching the participants how to create sustainable business ventures in challenging environments for and by some of the world's neediest communities.
Q: In your opinion, what groups in East Africa are the most underrepresented in STEM? Secondly, what key steps should we undertake to promote scientific literacy and STEM amongst these specific science and technology underrepresented groups?
Wanyiri: Universally, women are the most underrepresented in STEM. This remain the same in STEM careers in Kenya and more needs to be done to get as many young girls in high school taking up an interest in STEM careers by having female role models that they can identify with.
On the other hand, the base of the pyramid (BoP) market is home to skilled artisans - informal tinkerers and fabricators referred to as Jua Kali is East Africa. The informal sector, though employing over 70% of young people in Sub-Saharan Africa, access to knowledge on best practices, access to automation and warehousing facilities as well as expanding the reach of their market beyond their local towns. These challenges are great opportunities for both the government and private sector to tap into the vast potential and skillset available by improving STEM vocational training facilities & content to keep it up do date with current trends in technology.
Q: Finally, in your view, what is the importance of STEM education, innovation, technology, entrepreneurship and investment as well as infrastructures and the rule of law to the socio-economic development of East Africa?
Wanyiri: Access to STEM education, either formally or informally, provides young people with the skills and tools they need to innovate and build ideas that tackle local challenges and potentially grow sustainable ventures from these ideas. Moreover, STEM education and the potentially of technology and entrepreneurship is deeply hinged on access to resource to nurture and grow these ideas and the communities from which these ideas come from. There needs to be policies set by the government to easy local manufacture, both in terms of the cost manufacture and protection from cheap imports. Lastly, by having the key stakeholders - government, educational bodies (public and private) and the private sector tap into local talent to develop innovative solutions to challenges in the local content, this opens up opportunities for both problem solving and the sustainable growth of African economies.