4. Kwangu Kwako and AB3D

Another excellent opportunity to meet entrepreneurs with a passion for improving the lives of others. I began the day by collecting Winnie in an Uber and we headed to a Kwangu Kwako construction site so I could get to grips with their project. Then in the afternoon I travelled a short distance to the workshop of Africa Born 3D Printing (AB3D) to meet the team before I join them for a workshop on Saturday.

Kwangu Kwako

Fire is a huge problem in the slums of Kenya. Each year there are over 10,000 individual fires which burn at least 200 homes in one go. It’s difficult to imagine the scale of the devastation, and that’s routine life in the slums. The fires have lots of different causes, particularly cooking fires, electrical fires from very dodgy wiring and kerosene lamp fires. Loss of property and lives is just normal now.

Goats grazing on the rubbish piled up near the site of a fire at the edge of a slum

In 2016, a large slum fire caused the co-founders, Winnie and Simon Dixon to decide they wanted to find a way of minimising the impact of fires. After this particular fire, the only structure that remained standing was a prefabricated concrete toilet installed by Sanergy, so Winnie and Simon decided to investigate prefabricated concrete options which could be used for housing. Within a year of the fire, Simon and Winnie had a prototype to bring their concept to life.

Kwangu Kwako means “your place, my place” in Swahili and is on a journey to create affordable fireproof houses suitable for installation in slums.

The housing economy of the slums is actually not as straightforward as you might expect, and Winnie and Simon had to take time to investigate how the best majority of houses came to be made of such flimsy materials. Land in Nairobi is incredibly valuable, even in the slums. Land owners have often inherited the land, but really still don’t have any income, so they actually can’t afford to build good houses. They also don’t tend to have secure jobs and are often running kiosks in the slum themselves, and so the banks don’t think they have enough collateral to secure a loan to afford better housing materials. So they lease the land out.

The people who lease the land from the landowners are responsible for building the houses and then renting them on. The people who own the leases also don’t have very much money, so they build the cheapest structures possible. They are completely aware that the houses are likely to burn down, and there is no insurance, so they will loose everything when the houses burn (making it less likely they would spend any more money on construction). The tenants then pay monthly rent.

In Kibera, the situation is so desperate that the rent is extremely low, however in the other slums, a family of four would usually pay $45USD per month for a 12′ X 12′ (3.6m x 3.6m) single room dwelling with a corrugated iron sheet for roof and walls.

So this is the backdrop for Kwangu Kwako to work with; nobody in this situation has any money to spare, but it’s just not sustainable for these fires to rip through large areas of the slum so frequently. And, seeing that the concrete toilet was the only thing to survive, Winnie and Simon began the journey to find an affordable option, and to create the economic conditions for this project to work.

After undertaking material selection in Nairobi, they found that there were no prefabricated concrete panels which were both cheap and durable, so, in 2015 when they founded the company, they welcomed in a Canadian engineer from Engineers Without Borders (EWB) to help with the design of suitable panels in terms of size and material construction. They also developed the process for laying the foundations and ensuring a robust interlocking design. Engineers Without Borders Canada have a page about Kwangu Kwako here.

Kwangu Kwako team constructing a school

Concrete cube samples were sent to a test house in Nairobi and the concrete composition was narrowed down to three options which could work in the designs being proposed and tested.

Now Kwangu Kwako has their own factory in Nairobi and they source all the materials locally.

The factory currently manufactures 16 different panels in different sizes and different end-types and also has a test house where they can conduct fire testing. The walls are really effective as a fire break both from internal fires and fires in neighbouring properties. . There is now zero timber in the construction and all of the rooves and doors are made of metal. It’s much better for safety and security.

The concrete panel construction makes a huge difference in lots of ways, to having privacy during conversations, to being able to leave the house locked and having confidence that their possessions will not be stolen.

The factory also had a show house because Kenyans really need to see what they are buying before they are willing to commit (quite an interesting cultural challenge). The sales are really only secured when the individuals see a finished product – this makes it difficult to build custom in the early phases in new areas.

To begin to address the economic challenges in this scenario, Kwangu Kwako has created a partnership with microfinancers to connect landlords with loans that cover 100% of the value of the construction project for the new housing. The significant downside here is that the loan only lasts three years and the rental income directly goes to paying off the loan, so during this time, the owner makes no money from the rental income. Winnie is looking at trying to extend the loan to four years to allow the landlords to keep some of the rental income during the payback time. Minimum viable monthly rental income per room is $45 to allow a loan to be repaid over 3 years. Leases for the land are usually 10 years, which means that there would be seven years of profitable renting.

A Kwangu Kwako construction team

The properties are 100% mortgaged, so customers do not require a deposit, but they have to prove to the bank that they have collateral funds to repay the loan in case their rental income fails.

I visited the largest construction project that Kwangu Kwako has undertaken so far – a school being constructed in four phases. Currently they are in Phase 1, constructing two large classrooms and I spoke to Luke, the construction supervisor about the project. The Phase 1 building needs to be completed by October so that the children can use it as an exam hall – a great inauguration!

It’s difficult to imagine how much of a positive impact this project is going to have on these young lives. I was able to look into Class 1 and 2; with 82 and 60 students in each class, in a metal building without windows, crammed onto benches in the dim light. It was sweltering in there and absolutely not an ideal learning environment. The new building is going to be bright and airy. It will still be cramped, because they will take as many students as can physically fit into the space, but the children will all have a better chance to learn in this new space.

To date there have been 43 projects and currently Kwangu Kwako hires 7 full-time staff and has two construction crews. Each project has a supervisor employed by Kwangu Kwako but the rest of the team are usually locally employed labour. It’s great experience for the locals to get new skills and they can be employed more easily in future, and they are also great ambassadors for Kwangu Kwako. They are currently training up a new supervisor and she is learning all about the product, design, construction and panel manufacturing. Being able to move staff from one role to another is really good for continuous improvement and for flexibility of the workforce.

The factory currently produces enough panels for 16 houses per month with a single crew. There is enough space to expand to 6 crews before they outgrow the manufacturing facility.

Financing is the next big challenge, and moving to a four year loan would unlock a significant market. A reasonable number of people have land but the lack of liquid cash is the biggest challenge, so the current model isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Winnie really made me laugh when we were waiting for a taxi out at the nearest road, when a workman walked past and casually said “hello white lady” and I just replied cheerfully with a hello. Winnie was having absolutely none of it and made sure he went away to think about addressing someone as if the colour of their skin was important. I suppose it was touching that she was defending my feelings, but for me it is absolutely no big deal and I just see it as normal.


I went across to the AB3D workshop and met a great group of people this afternoon and we ended up hanging out for longer than expected.

Michelle is the person I’ve been speaking to to arrange the visit, and I also met Trish, Riddick, Nehemiah and Michael (Riddick’s cousin)

Roy, the company’s co-founder is currently at Stanford University undertaking graduate studies in Design Impact Engineering, which sounds amazing.

The concept of using 3D printing in this way began when Roy was at University of Nairobi studying mechanical engineering. He submitted an entry to a 2013 social impact competition – proposing using a 3D printer to create bespoke shoes that could fit the deformed feet of sufferers of jiggers. He received support for his idea and began taking 3D scans of individuals’ feet and printing shoes to fit each unique foot. The project was called Happy Feet and made use of the University’s Fab Lab. Roy developed an interest in how 3D printing can help people, and realised there could be a real empowering project to give people access to 3D printers.

Commercial printers would cost around 130,000 Ksh each, and he founded AB3D to produce 3D printers using recycled electronic components, costing 40,000Ksh. He believes that there is a way to decentralise manufacturing to provide significant empowerment to Kenyan communities and there is no good reason that Kenya couldn’t lead the way in the introduction of 3d printing across various industries.

A selfie with the AB3D team

AB3D has been running since 2015 and around 80% of the 3D printer parts are recycled e-waste from a local WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Centre from when people dispose of printers and other unwanted electronic items.

It was interesting to hear the reception that AB3D has had. Individuals and groups tend to see 3D printing as a cool idea and they like seeing it in action but they don’t tend to see quite what it could do for them if they owned one. It’s not dissimilar in the UK really, with a majority of 3D printers either in the domain of larger organisations, universities or hobbyists, with the former two affording fairly robust commercially produced designs. The company tends to find that most of their engagements come from people wanting to use them as a 3D print shop (which they are able to support, but was not intended to be core business).

AB3D has sold a few printers to schools and provided training in their operation. It’s an interesting concept but doesn’t obviously fit in with the curriculum. I am working with AB3D to run a workshop at the weekend, and the idea behind running the workshops for schoolchildren is to find out what types of lessons can work to inspire children and teachers to include this technology in school lessons. This includes more than just 3D printing but just in general to spark more curiosity.

The team has a broad range of skills and they are able to provide design and print services. The most interesting job they’ve undertaken was in 2016 when they supported doctors in an operation to separate conjoined twin. The operation was performed at Kenyatta National Hospital and AB3D used MRI scans to print an accurate 3D model of the conjoined skulls to allow doctors to understand the level of complexity in the procedure and to plan the operation.

AB3D has partnered with the Xavier Project, a British NGO operating in East Africa supporting refugees by providing educational content and training. Refugees, both adult and children, from South Sudan in Kakuma refugee camps are learning about 3D printing and developing technical skills which can enable them to create an income stream.

Riddick manages the team now, a mechanical engineer who designs the 3D printers to suit the niche that is found for them.

The business relies on interns, but people love working there, so the team is vibrant and the skills they learn are really valuable. Many of the previous interns have gone on to set up their own technical businesses. They are currently using the skills and networks of the team to explore different revenue streams. It is more than a 3D printing company, it’s an organisation that can be trusted to solve unique problems.

Michelle rightly pointed out that without practical experience and inspiration, it’s easy for trained engineers to fall into a humdrum rut of engineering rather than innovative, problem-solving. The work they do at AB3D really does inspire creativity.

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