Hope you’re doing well.
This month’s letter is a week late due to some personal circumstances, my apologies for that.
I’m happy to share that the Welcome to Nigeria Challenge is in it’s last stage with the participants submitting their design concepts, you can check out their designs on YouTube.
In case you missed it, here’s last month’s newsletter.
For the next issue of the Hardware Things Zine, I’ve been researching hardware startups and communities across the continent focusing on how they deal with supply chain issues: buying components, dealing with wait times etc. Last month, I spoke with Josh Agyemang, who runs the IOT Network Hub, a community of engineers in Ghana developing internet of things solutions.
This five year old community now boasts a membership of more than 2,000 members, most of whom are tertiary students studying engineering in the country. For the students, being a part of the community helps them learn new skills that they can use in their final year thesis.
This interview has been condensed for this newsletter and will appear in full in the zine’s second issue to be released in September.
Chuma: How has the community grown in the last five years? Are there projects that have gone into the market?
Josh: We started about five years ago, just exploring emerging technologies like IOT and 3D printing. One of the projects we settled on was for the smart home; we were looking at how we would be able to build our own hardware and be able to package it using 3D printing, and how we could collect [smart home] data and process it using machine learning. This project has been in R&D for some time now and we’re hoping that this year we will be able to pilot it and work on commercializing it.
When COVID-19 came, we saw a rise [in the use] of Veronica Buckets, which is a mechanism with a tap fixed at the base for frequent hand washing. But to use this system, you have to touch the tap, wash your hand, and when you’re done washing your hands, touch the tap again. Since [we learnt that] the virus stays on surfaces, which will make the tap also contaminated. We thought of some ways to automate the mechanism as well as handle disposal of napkins.
Most of the projects we’ve done so far are mostly at the research and development stage, we’re still looking forward to taking them to the next level where we can start building them into products and taking them to market.
Chuma: Are you then just an R&D lab, working on projects around your ideas that can be turned into projects? Is that the model you want to use going forward?
Josh: We started first with a community; we needed to bring all the people together. If you look at the IOT ecosystem, there are a lot of diverse skills and knowledge that need to come together. Think about any project’s lifecycle: you have to build sensors for data collections so you need someone who understands the communication technologies available to transmit your data. You also need people who can build cloud infrastructure to collect and store the data you’re looking at, as well as data scientists or AI engineers who can also process the data. So there was a need to bring these different people together.
This way, when you take on a project, you don’t become the one person who has to build the hardware, build the apps, AI models, and everything. Instead, it would be a team of diverse skills and different backgrounds coming together. And then [in order] to explore the use cases: building the technology is one thing, applying it to to different industries requires expertise from the industry [in question]. If you want to build something for the agriculture space, you’ll probably need an expert with that background to understand what kind of data that’s useful or the implication of this data to the farmer, and/or the crops. So we saw the community to be the best approach to studying this.
Over the past five years of operation, we’ve also seen the need to have a lab where we can take it from just community meetings and engagement to building real life applications and products that can be commercialized to create more jobs for the use of the country and continent. So that’s the phase where we are now and we are working on getting our own innovation lab where we can have the equipment we need to to build industrial design. So we’re looking at the laser cutters, the CNC machines, 3D printers, and all that, that will be able to build the level the industrial level that is required. So that if we have to do mass production, we can easily send this schematics or blueprints of our product to China. And then they can mass produce them, ship them back, assemble them, program them and start putting them in the market. So that’s the level we are now. And this year, we working on making sure as we get this foundation set up.
Chuma: For the different projects you’re developing you’d need quite a bit of inventory. How do you currently get those parts?
Josh: Starting with a community was one of the best things we did. With this approach, we already have access to resources, especially when it comes to sensors and microcontrollers and other components. Through their community engagements [and seeing how many people were interested], members started to see the opportunity to start retailing some of these components, so as I’m speaking with you now, we have five major retailers in Ghana and they are all members of the community who saw the opportunity to start their own business by selling components to members who want to build stuff. And they have been doing very well to help with the supply chain. They mostly ship from China to Ghana, and then able to return them to the members of the community. So it has made it so easy to access components if you want to build anything. So most of our components, we source from our partners, who are also in Ghana, as retailers for electronic components and materials.
One of their designs for the Veronica Buckets being tested.
The five retailers I mentioned all have websites so you can easily go [place an order there]. So we have Oku Electronics, for example, where you can put in an order by 8am and by 12pm you have it. If you order in the late afternoon, there’s a possibility to add it to the batch of deliveries for tomorrow. They also do delivery within Accra and outside the capital region; within Accra, you can get it within 24 hours.
I think one challenge they face is that they also need to order them from China, which at times takes some time. To order for them in bulk from China probably takes about a month or two, especially if they’re not doing express delivery. I think that’s the greatest challenge, suppliers being able to get the resources as soon as is needed from China. And probably the second challenge is that these startups are very young, they do not have enough capital to order these components in large quantities so they only order what they can afford or the parts that customers purchase the most. So it’s not every component that you might ask that you can get instantly, some you have to wait till it’s been ordered for you.
This month’s Community Chat is with Gbemisola Olaniyan, a mechanical design engineer in Nigeria using software to automate mechanical design. She’s also a co-founder of Alo-Timeys.* Join us!
Until next time,