Open AIR’s research on affordable access to 3D printing technologies in Africa: insights from 2 interviews with social entrepreneurs in Kenya

by Bram van Wiele

IMG_31963D printing technology holds great promise for social entrepreneurs to develop and produce affordable and locally needed products. But the cost of 3D printers remains a key challenge. One Open African Innovation Research (Open AIR) case study executed by members of the IP Unit — “3D Printing: Enabler of Social Entrepreneurship in Africa?” — examines the role of two types of initiatives in facilitating affordable access to 3D printing technology: so-called ‘Fab Labs’, which provide public access to a wide range of tools and machinery, including 3D printers, and the local production of low-cost 3D printers. In early July, Dr. Tobias Schonwetter and Bram van Wiele went to Nairobi, Kenya, to interview individuals involved in African Born 3D Printing (AB3D), the Happy Feet project, Fab Lab Nairobi and Artisan Hive.

During these interviews, mechanical engineer and social entrepreneur Roy Ombatti told us about his project “Happy Feet”, the goal of which was to create affordable, customised and medicated shoes for people with deformed feet as a result of wide-spread sand flea infestation, especially in poorer areas. It was during this project, that Roy Ombatti realised the need for affordable access to 3D printing technology. As a result he founded, in 2015 and together with Karl Heinz Samenjo, AB3D. AB3D now designs, produces and sells 3D printers made from recycled electronic waste and other locally available materials, at a fraction of the cost of most commercially available 3D printers. AB3D has already sold around 40 of its printers, and some of their printers have been sold to buyers from countries such as Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.S., and Pakistan. During our interview, Roy emphasised that they would never have built their first printer had the design not been open source.

At the University of Nairobi’s Fab Lab, recently relocated to the university’s Upper Kabete Campus, we met Karl Heinz Samenjo and his new team from Artisan Hive. Artisan Hive’s goal is to design and develop 3D printed products that help mitigating pressing challenges in local communities. One of Artisan Hive’s flagship projects is the production of locally-manufactured, low-cost, 3D printed microscopes for use in local communities for medical diagnostics. Currently, Artisan’s Hive is looking into setting up localised 3D printing kiosks where people can print or buy their printed microscopes. In our interview, Karl Heinz stressed that one of the key advantages of using 3D printing technology is that the time between conception and production is reduced to a few days at most. Similar to the comments made by Ombatti, Samenjo stated that: “We believe in open collaboration. [For instance,] on our website you would have the files for anything we make. Anything we make is open source.

AB3D and Artisan Hive are but two examples of how openness can act as a crucial engine for locally relevant innovation in Africa.