The Technology of Business African start-ups make location payAfrica’s journey to space takes off Business at the tip of Africa’s fingersUsing apps to mend our streets Victor Kawagga is a softly spoken young man, but his quiet manner can’t counter the eager sparkle in his eyes and the passion he has for the machines he’s surrounded by.
The bedroom of this house in the Ugandan capital Kampala has been converted to a home lab, and the young people hard at work here are building robots.
The ‘him’ he is referring to is Solomon King, the 29-year-old technologist and businessman who takes robotics into the classrooms of Uganda as the founder of Fundi Bots.
“He stalked me,” laughs Mr King, bending his head slightly to fit his lanky frame into the doorway.
They expect it to take two months to complete the robotNow Victor and 12 others spend their days at Mr King’s home working on projects that involve using locally-sourced materials in this case bike chains, spokes and the like to build a robot that will move, sense water and light, and transmit signals to a receiver.
Victor wants to go to university but this is Uganda, and for ordinary people higher education is expensive.
Solomon King, the founder of Fundi Bots, holds one of the kit robots they use at their robotics campsThe government-funded scholarships don’t always go where they should. Fundi Bots – fundi is Swahili for maker or artisan – is his chance to learn about a world that might otherwise have been denied him.
The everyday applications of robotics might escape the casual observer but, Mr King says the science has clear and practical applications for life in Uganda.”Fundibots for me is like a way to build a new breed of thinkers and innovators,” he says.”The thing about robotics is it’s one discipline, but there’s a million sub-disciplines in it.
“I keep telling the students that when they’ve finished their first robot, they’ve learnt about electronics, they learnt about logical thinking, they’ve learnt about programming, mechanics, you’ve learnt a bit about biology, you’ve learnt popular science.”
“By the time you have a small army of people who have done robotics at some point in their lives, their mindset is no longer the same. They look at solutions from a creative angle.”
This certainly seems to be borne out by the young people in this room.
“Basically what I like to do is create something,” says Arnold Ochola.
“For example we have a power problem here in Uganda. So if I can come up with something that solves that I would really be proud of myself.”
Phiona Namirimu wants to be an aero mechanical engineer: “Right now I’m building things, so if I hope to build a plane someday, I think I start small and grow big so this is part of it.”
“Mother of invention
Betty Kituyi Mukhalu of Café Scientifique is the Fundi Bots coordinator, and remembers their first school visit: “He came with this little robot, Nigel. Nigel walked, and it was so marvellous to see someone from our own environment having made that.”
Mr King says that growing up he was always ‘tinkering’, pulling things apart and putting them back together, or making something new.
Betty Kituyi Mukhalu: “[Solomon] talked about having a lab at home in his spare bedroom. That just charmed me.””Back then most of us kids made our own toys, we’d make wire cars and all sorts of gadgets from old tins and bottles and stuff.
“I was always the one trying to make mine move on it’s own as opposed to being pulled along by a string.”Robotics is a ‘solution waiting for a problem’ says Mr King.
“Long term there’s industrialisation which is maybe a bit too grand, but on the small scale we have small scale solutions – maybe a small windmill in a village that generates power. Maybe a home-made mosquito repellent system. That’s what I’m trying to do with the kids.
“I think my biggest passion is to see Africans solving Africans problems.
“A lot of the time we get assistance from abroad and when you bring a solution down here it doesn’t quite work, because it’s different mindsets, different environment, just the weather conditions alone are strange.
“That’s what Fundi Bots is about. It’s called Fundi Bots but it’s almost less about the robots than the process of building the robots.”Mr King feels that agriculture in particular could benefit from robotics.
Technology is helping improve the prospects of students in other ways.Connectivity and bandwidth are on-going problems in most emerging markets, and Uganda is no different.Despite the gradual roll-out of fibre-optic cable, and the spread of 3G – and soon 4G – connections some areas can be patchy, and the cost of transferring large amounts of data is high.
The Remote Areas Community Hotspots for Education and Learning (RACHEL) repository is a database of textbooks, online resources, MIT Open courseware and other sources. The content is housed in a server – a PC harddrive – and available offline.
It is the creation of a non-profit organisation called World Possible, and in Uganda the content is distributed by their partners UConnect.
KiBO foundation students using the RACHEL repository. The KiBO foundation provides intensive courses in IT to young Ugandans.”We don’t have one textbook per child here as you do in Europe,” says UConnect’s Daniel Stern.
“The teacher will have the textbook and the students will copy what the teacher puts on the blackboard, so to suddenly have access to an offline Wikipedia where everything is immediately clickable there’s a very high level of engagement.”
UConnect supplies equipment – including solar-powered computer labs in rural areas – and the repository to schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons.
Source: BBC News