Boys toys in Mathare Valley Slum Nairobi

Amid the squalor in one of Kenya’s most depressing slums, there is a surprising amount of flashy colour and fun

Njuguna makes these toys because he like to! His clients are local people in the slum but he does sell well outside of that market too.

I was especially enthralled by this scrap metal motorbike but the price was Ksh 2,500 (US$ 30) which may have been a special price for visitors like me – I couldn’t afford it!

Scrap metal gocart – boys in heaven!

Njuguna also makes beautiful micro toys for a specialist corporate market – they had been sold but he had photos

You guessed it – client was Safaricom!

Amongst all the toys were some other serious gadgets that Njuguna had put together for no specific reason -a couple of free standing windmills rotate rapidly in the narrow streets that channel the wind. They stand there like artistic monuments, but Njuguna told me that he made these constructions made from parts taken from broken cars and had put them out and was waiting for an idea to strike him regarding what to apply them to. He called it his research experiment. …  somewhere else lay another of his inventions, a waterpump  …..(should I have suggested something?)

Kids play by open sewer in Mathare Valley

Visiting Kibera was disturbing in so many ways


….and yet it was thoroughly invigorating and inspiring – a pleasant surprise . If you ever get a chance, do visit and seek out the Njuguna’s tucked away in narrow streets. These brilliant artists and innovators might live in what seems like the worst hell on earth, yet somehow it feels like they choose to.

Cameroonian Bamboo Magic

Our friend Bill Zimmerman, a technologist who runs a startup un-incubator called LimbeLabs in Cameroon, posted this interesting story on his blog about a teacher who makes an extra income by fabricating gadgets out of Bamboo.

Avid readers may remember the Bamboo Bike project, so the idea of using Bamboo as an alternative and sustainable material isn’t that far fetched. In fact, we’re glad that someone took the initiative and ventured into this field with so many different products at the same time. Bamboo Magic, really. Make sure not to miss out the video!

“I had an opportunity to stop by the 2009 South West Regional Agro-Pastoral Show, an annual exhibition for local farmers and craftsmen, here in Limbe this afternoon. The event was held on a community field ringed by exhibition booths overflowing with every imaginable vegetable, fruit and live animal cultivated and raised in the southwest region of Cameroon. In addition, there were a number of innovators with homemade products and gadgets crafted from local materials.

Amid all the displays, one guy stood apart with some creations that can only be described as a near perfect marriage of form, function, green design and a borderline obsession with bamboo. Lekuama Ketuafor is the proprietor of Bamboo Magic, a one-man cottage industry he’s started to supplement his work as a teacher.

Using a set of simple hand tools, glue, varnish, skill and loads of patience, Lekuama finds ways of using bamboo—a ubiquitous, low-cost, renewable material—in ways many people have never imagined. Judging from the size of the crowd gathered around his booth, I suspect few Cameroonians had seen anything quite like Lekuama’s creations before.

Nice details

Among the intricately decorated bamboo shoes [2], vest, palm wine calabash, cowboy hat, clocks and so on, I was immediately attracted to two incredibly cool electronics-related pieces: a bamboo covered Nokia phone and an attractive and functional laptop case. Here’s a video of Lekuama, dressed appropriately in head-to-toe bamboo wear, demonstrating these items:

The attention to detail on the laptop case is impressive, right down to the external USB port access, shoulder strap attachments, carry handle, magnetic clasps, internal elastic keeper strap and red felt lining. And how about that chic mobile phone?

Due to the time intensive nature of his craft, Lekuama makes these items for sale in very small quantities. However, his dream is to establish a training center where he can transfer his skills to young Cameroonians and build a community of artisan microentrepreneurs.”

Obviously, agricultural shows in Africa are a great resource for AfriGadgets.

Building Dominic Wanjihu’s Food Dryer

Dominic Wanjihia is from Kenya, and he’s here at Maker Faire Africa in Ghana because of the innovative designs and solutions that he comes up with for problems that ordinary Africans face. We had profiled one of his earlier inventions, an evapocooler for camel milk in Somalia, last year.

He’s been in Accra this last week working in the timber yards in Makola building a food dryer and a food cooler to show at the event. Both of them use air, and the dryer takes advantage of the heat from the sun. More detailed posts will be coming on them, but here’s a few shots of him and the carpenters building the devices.

Dominic Wanjihia in Accra building his food dryer

Plans for the food dryer

Eben building the food racks

Lumber yard in Makola

The beesness of honey

Bee keeping logo

You know it’s a great jua kali project when you see the logo

Honey is one of the most valuable products of the drylands of Africa. It can be obtained by following a little bird called a honey guide to a bees nest in a tree, whereupon one raids the hive. Or bees can be farmed…in most places a bee keeper simply hollows out logs to make perfectly acceptable hives for local consumption. for commercial purposes however, Langstroth hives are universally thought to be superior to the traditional log hives found in Africa – the box shape make them easy to stack and move around,  and the movable frames guide bees to build combs in an organized manner making comb extraction easy. These hives also have a queen excluder, a mesh grid, usually made of wire or plastic, sized such that worker bees can pass through but the bigger queens cant. This keeps the queen from laying eggs in the honey combs called supers leading to cleaner honey. There are so many NGO’s, GOs and religious Orgs introducing these bright yellow langstroth hives across the Kenyan landscape.They don’t always catch on though – in rural areas people still prefer the logs…

Traditional hive
Traditional hive

Traditional log hives are hollowed out logs usually cut from specific tree species with the permission of the local chief. They are hung high in trees and the inside is rubbed with leaves of plants that attract bees – a practice that has been going on for eons. The bees enter the hives through a tiny hole and build their combs willy nilly throughout the space, it’s inefficient and the honey is of a lower quality as the larvae are all mixed up with the honey combs. Not very good for a business approach… or should I say Beesness?.

Langstroth hive in Baringo Kenya
Langstroth hive in Baringo Kenya

Logic would suggest that the Langstroth hives which produce cleaner honey and they save trees should be favoured right? Wrong! These modern hives are produced by experts in cities and cost a good $100 – far beyond the reach of anyone living in rural Kenya. It’s also rumoured that these hives are easily broken into by honey badgers, over heat in the dry climate of north Kenya driving bees away, and are expensive to maintain. On a personal note, I for one, find them extremely ugly too.

Modified traditional hive
Modified traditional hive

One bee keeping cooperative in Bogoria has figured out a cunning way of modifying traditional log hives to produce more honey. A bee excluder is made using coffee mesh.

Symon demonstrated how beeswax tracks are laid down to guide the bees where to build their combs in neat lines. Cost? One third of the Langstroth hive.

Bucket of raw honey
Bucket of raw honey

The honey is collected at night by naked men (yes totally naked …) they say that this prevents one from getting bees stuck in your clothing… I asked about the possibility of getting stung in sensitive places, they said the bees were far too civilized for that…but yes, people had fallen from the trees and been found comatose and butt naked at the tree base…

Honey extractor
Honey extractor

Raw honey with comb is sold to the local cooperative where wax is separated from honey. The machine is another jua kali item bought in a workshop in Nairobi.

Home made bee smoker
Home made bee smoker

Bees are smoked out of the hive using a home made smoker.

Production by 40 bee keepers was 8 tons last year, each Kg of raw honey was bought by the cooperative for Ksh 80 ($1), and sold on raw at Ksh 100, or processed and honey sold at Ksh 600 per kg ($8).

8 tons of raw honey were collected in 2008 – this is valued at Ksh640,000 for the 40 bee keepers in the business.

The wax is not wasted but converted into candles which sell for Ksh 10 each ($ 0.12).

Candle making gadget
Candle making gadget

Using a jua kali gadget for making candles, comprising a string, a piece of conduit pipe and two beer caps….ingenious!

Bees wax candle
Bees wax candle

Producing the sweetest smelling cheapest candles I’ve ever used. They claim they burn much longer than paraffin candles. Besides they smell delicious

Some sweet facts

· The dry lands of Kenya are the important honey producing districts in Kenya – the semi arid climate, diversity of flowering plants and easy access to fresh water makes it perfect for bees. Kenya is the fourth largest producer of honey in Africa 22,000 tons, China is the worlds largest producer at 299,000 tons (USA produces 70,000 tons) (figures for 2005).

· The group in Baringo produced 8 tons of honey last year.

Bee keeping motto
I love their motto for hard work - "never expect magic from no where".

· Kenya is a world center of bee diversity with over 3,000 species (about 10% of the worlds total number of species)

· Only 150 species or thereabouts produce honey in Kenya.

· Contrary to popular belief, most bee species are harmless… they have no stings

· The Kalenjin people immunize themselves to bees by purposely stinging babies with bees

· In many pats of Africa, honey is an important component of dowry or bride price – a kilogram being made as part payment for the bride – symbolic of the sweetness of sex – or so I’m told 😉

· Bees pollinate most of the crops that we eat

· Bee keeping is most productive in natural habitats, and is a one of the few forms of resource extraction that does not destroy the environment.

The sour facts

· Bees in USA and Europe are disappearing fast – a condition described as colony collapse disorder (ie. Nobody knows why it’s happening). Africa is unaffected so far making honey production a very sweet deal.

The Swahili Bed

A Swahili bed and couch

The Swahili bed was in a recent article on MAKE Magazine (a publication that inspired AfriGadget’s creation). In it they discuss why this style of bed is so useful on the hot and humid East African coast.

“In Kenya, the most common and most useful piece of furniture is the rot- and bedbug-resistant Swahili bed.”

“In most houses, you can only find one type of furniture: the Swahili bed. It’s used as a couch, bed, table, and everything else. It’s comfortable and perfect for the hot, humid climate.”

The beds are made from locally grown mvuli or mbamba kofi trees, then straps are created out of palmetto leaves which are soaked in salt water and woven into rope.

Years ago I used to export furniture like this from East Africa, so it’s something that I happen to know quite a bit about. Which provides yet another lesson for those of us who live, or work, in Africa. That is, items that seem mundane to us, as we live our lives in Africa, can be quite exceptional if we only stop to really look.

(via Timbuktu Chronicles)