1 January 2016

Tanzania's Buni Hub Makes 3D Printer and Drone From E-Waste and Looks to Find Ways of Mass Producing

Tanzania's reputation for innovation and start-ups has for too long stood in the shadow of its more PR savvy neighbor Kenya. Buni Hub started in 2011 and has over the last four years built up a user base and an interesting portfolio of activities. Russell Southwood spoke to its Community Manager Jumanne Mtambalike.

Buni Hub - Buni means innovation in Swahili - is part of the TanzICT programme under the Commision for Science and Technology (Costech) and was launched with the help of the Finnish Government. Over 60% of its community are undergraduate students from local universities and college. During the holidays these students even come in from outside Dar es Salaam. The majority of members are either co-working or freelance.

There are six levels of membership including: Intern, freelancer, start-up, volunteer and social champion. There are community meet-ups twice a month. It used to be an open space but it found it difficult to offer value to people so has gone over to a system of registration and now has 400 members. They can apply for one of four programmes: Internship, Mentorship, a Maker Space and Community Outreach. It wants to extend activities to Universities by getting them to form their own communities.

In terms of start-ups, Buni Hub sees itself as working at the grassroots and does not do either incubation or acceleration:"We serve people who have ideas and they are supposed to form a team and create a product or prototype. They can then apply for mentorship." There are 160 students working on 14 projects.

The TanzICT Fund acts as a seed funder and has put early stage money behind some of these start-ups. Ideas started at Buni Hub include: Tango TV (local VoD platform - see below); Soka (football fan platform - see below); Ev Plans (content planning - still in embryo); Primpo (edtech); AgriInfo (as the name says); and Time Tickets (online ticket sales).

Its Buni Maker Space is used by those who want to build something that needs electronics or engineering who can pilot or prototype it. The first 3D printer was bought by Costech for the space: "We wanted to help other 3D printing projects located in Africa." So those involved set out to build a 3D printer using e-waste, with recycled electronic motors and other parts of consumer electronics. It claims that this is the first e-waste created printer in Africa.

In February 2015 when the project was announced publicly Jamanne Mtambalike told Disrupt Africa:" "We have received requests from eight different organisations and individuals from different places in the world requesting us to share the work through documenting the process and publishing it online."

"The plan now is to scale the production by involving SMEs and vocational training institutions to take part in the process. Another plan is to document all the work, create a Wiki, estimate the production cost and pilot the project of getting the filament from recycled plastic materials."

Since then, a group of intern students from the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology have taken an existing drone in the maker space, hacked it and built another one from scratch, again using e-waste "instead of just buying one. They downloaded videos from You Tube to check how it worked and in 7-8 weeks they had built their own".

"The only thing they've not done themselves is the control board which wad bought in from outside. The production cost is US$300-400 per drone for what they're making right now. We're looking for potential ways of scaling the project."

However, just as many African start-ups find it tough rolling out in more than one country, it's probably even tougher taking a prototype to a wider market. Most of the prototypes made in this way are significantly more expensive to make as one on-offs than the bought item.

But with import taxes and shipping, there should be an opening that several people could squeeze through before too long. What's not known is the scale of the market. 3D printers are mainly found in maker spaces and demand for them may grow over the next 18-months to two years as more tech hubs create maker spaces. They are not yet really a consumer electronics item in this part of the planet.

In terms of drones, I had a conversation with a dealer in Abuja at the Digital Africa conference last year: he had sold exactly one at that point. Again there will be demand as organisations slowly move towards using them but they are also not yet a consumer product.

But before that point, the Tanzanian start-up sector has to solve the tougher problem of finding funding:"Tanzania is not Silicon Valley. Funding for start-up businesses is difficult to get. There are not many investors and they are looking for businesses that can scale and grow for a quick ROI. So there are challenges on both sides."

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