iHub Research Build Lab

Cite as:

Okune, Angela, Philip Ochola Mak'Anyengo, Sylvester Wachira Ndaiga, Sidney Ochieng, Rhoda Omenya, Chris Orwa, Nanjira Sambuli, and Varyanne Sika. 2018. "iHub Research Build Lab." In iHub Research (2011 - 2017): A Critical Technology Action Research Group Within Nairobi's Flagship Tech Innovation Hub, created by Okune et al. In STS Across Borders Digital Exhibit, curated by Aalok Khandekar and Kim Fortun. Society for Social Studies of Science. August.


The iHub Research Build Lab was an experimental hardware design group interested in building appropriate technology solutions for pertinent issues that afflict much of the developing world, with a vision to build a culture of afro-centric innovation among youth. The aim of the internal group was to develop internationally acclaimed and contextual applied technologies with a focus on tackling societal challenges caused by inadequate infrastructure, provisions or services. Build Lab, like the iHub Research Data Lab, was unique in its approach to both develop as well as study the process of developing hardware technologies. This approach emerged from lessons learned over time at iHub Research and required a diverse team that included mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software engineers, and social scientists.

This PECE essay helps to answer the STS Across Borders analytic question: “What people, projects, and products exemplify how this STS formation has developed over time?

This essay is part of a broader exhibit on iHub Research.

STS Across Borders In Brief

STS Across Borders is a special exhibit organized by the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) to showcase how the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) has developed in different times, places...Read more

"Building" in order to study the "building"

AO: Build Lab was the "youngest" experimental project, which officially started in late 2014/early 2015. It was challenging as it sought to build and engineer things in order to also reflectively study the building of technology and its effects. One way that this reflexive process was fostered amongst the young engineers (many of them were university students or recent graduates) was through the Waza Experience program where the engineers and social social scientists worked together to develop a curriculum designed to both teach research and engineering skills. Panyabot was also another project through which the building as well as the studying (and documenting) of the building happened.

"Can you explain a bit more about what iHubR build lab was? Why did you decide to set it up?"

Wachira Ndaiga (July 2018): "Build Lab was an internal research group dedicated to surfacing, developing and supporting early stage hardware initiatives across varying economic sectors. Initially established to better formalise iHub Research’ long practised capacity in hardware product research, Build Lab additionally came to serve as a focal point for Nairobis’ hardware enthusiasts and professionals alike to commune as makers (​https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maker_culture​). Given then recent advances in electronics manufacturing (e.g. 3D Printing), electronics prototyping (e.g. Arduino) and the growth of DIY internet communities (e.g. Make, Hackaday and Instructables), opportunities in hardware innovation that once seemed near impossible were seemingly made much less so. The concerted governmental effort to advance and promote local manufacturing rekindled interest in and financial support of initiatives such as Numerical Machining Complex (NMC) and Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI) with private sector efforts coming in the form of Mobius Motors, Gearbox and BRCK. This confluence of opportunity and timing gave life to the Build Labs’ ambitious goal of serving as a testbed and launchpad for open, innovative hardware solution prototyping."

"What kinds of groups did the build lab engage with? Who was/is interested in hardware development / engineering in Africa?"

Wachira Ndaiga (July 2015): "In addition to those previously mentioned, the Build Lab group collaborated with organisations such as Intel (Kenya), IBM Research and Blue Horizons Embedded Systems towards the research and development of platforms and workshops tailored to promote STEM education across socio-economic, age and gender backgrounds. Having built a repute of competence and integrity, the Build Lab’s work positively perched the iHub as a regional nexus for hardware partners; evidenced in the various programs and workshops we designed and developed to better support young hardware entrepreneurs/innovators such as the Builders-In-Residence Program. Similar work was done in partnership with groups such as the MIT Media Lab with whom we developed and piloted a remote skills exchange platform dubbed ​HubLab in keeping with our mutual interest to identify talent and expand interest in building online communities for knowledge sharing across geographic and economic divides. Our clients included the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company who engaged us towards the proposal of a scalable and automated hardware solution to the water loss problem endemic throughout their piped network that culminated in an annual revenue loss of ~45% in 2014.

As evidenced, numerous parties from varied sectors engaged with the Build Lab towards a myriad of goals. These engagements can be thematically categorized as follows:

● International institutions seeking to develop inroads into Kenya’s burgeoning potential as a regional technology hub.

● Local institutions seeking to contract the Build Lab for it’s hardware expertise towards the development of locally designed solutions. This marked a growing shift in industries traditionally mired by vendor lock-in constraints that imposed strait capital and resource demands on their operation.

Build Lab: Incubating engineers within a research department (blurring the boundaries of social study of and doing of science)

AO: Philip, who explains below what he was working on at iHub Research, was an undergraduate Kenyan student who was visiting back to Kenya during his university holidays from South Korea where he lived and went to school. He won a competition to devise a smart energy device and was one of the first to join us at the iHub Research Build Lab under Wachira's guidance and direction. He worked on a "hard" engineering project but was open to engaging with social scientists and critical work on technology, and through our everyday interactions, developed and finessed his own understanding of the importance of the social context of tech. Symmetrically, the social scientists also developed an appreciation of and skill for engineering.

Phillip Ochola Mak'Anyengo (May 2018): "During my stay at the iHubR, I implemented a smart energy device that integrates electricity from normally incompatible power sources to power a house without having to redo extensive redesigns of a the houses' electric system. I led the team that participated in a global green energy competition with the project and emerged runners up during the second round of the competition. Also, we run an openCV Buildathon project. We started the project with Intel from the ground up, implemented the program and ran it. We attracted a lot of tech enthusiasts to the buildathon and by many measures it was a success. I had at least one builder who manage to make a finished program using the platform."

Working together with diverse team members

Phillip Ochola Mak'Anyengo (May 2018): "A memory from my time at iHubR that stands out for me was a "buildathon" event we co-hosted with Intel. The aim was to increase awareness for vision based machine learning among the Kenyan tech community. In order to facilitate this, I and our young team at Build Lab had to design the buildathon program and the tools that would be required by the engineers and the techies that were easy to use and intuitive, but at the same time allowed for applications of the complex algorithms to create practical use cases for the technologies involved. In the build up to this event, we had designers, software engineers, hardware engineers and other team members come together and chip in to assist in the planning of the event.

Panyabot Meet-up

AO: An example of some of the types of events and community gatherings fostered by the build lab and focused on young engineers and students.Read more

Examples of Build Lab alumni and what they are up to

Wachira Ndaiga (July 2018): "I’m currently undertaking my Masters in Robotics and Computation at UCL where I’m investigating the statistical variation of swarming algorithms as applied to field drones. Through the program, I have delved into cutting edge technologies and scientific principles such as Machine Learning, State Estimation and Affective Computing. I’m especially excited in this topical areas due to their wide applicability in veritably evolving how technology and society interact at scale. Ultimately, I am of the opinion that it is only by understanding the fundamentals of technology that it can then be appropriately adapted and advanced, shifting Africa from a consumption economy to one of creation."

Phillip Ochola Mak'Anyengo (May 2018): "I am now the Chief Technical Officer of a Korean tech start-up called Ask Ajumma (Wonderful). We are a personal assistant service for foreigners in Korea and I build the management system to manage client transactions, as well as implementing technologies to increase efficiency during client transactions."