Central Africa’s First Fab Lab Opens in Rwanda

In May 2016, the Kigali Digital Fabrication Laboratory opened its doors in Kigali, Rwanda. The first facility of its kind in Central Africa, the Fab Lab’s opening was the result of a joint effort between several international agencies including the Rwanda Development Board, Japan International Cooperation Agency, Rwanda Ministry of Education, Private Sector Federation’s ICT Chamber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and SOLIDWORKS. In an impressive display of collaboration and speed, this multinational effort was able to take the Fab Lab from idea to opening in less than a year!

Since taking the Presidential office in April of 2000, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has made education a priority. The country allocates an estimated 17 percent of its annual national budget to education, and President Kagame has made investing in his country’s citizens a priority. This focus is most visible in Rwanda’s Vision 2020 plan, a development program launched to transform the country through reconstruction, infrastructure and transport improvements, good governance, efficient agriculture production, private sector development, and bolstering healthcare and education. In terms of education, President Kagame has taken a particular interest in cultivating technological prowess, trade skills, innovation and creativity. If you’ve ever walked into a Fab Lab, you know it’s the perfect place to develop these skills.

The Fab Lab concept is the brainchild of MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. The program got its start in 2001 and has been a driving force behind the maker movement. Currently, there are more than 1,000 Fab Labs worldwide and that number will continue to grow as more governments and communities take an interest in grassroots innovation. Gershenfeld, together with myself, as well as other SOLIDWORKS executives including Suchit Jain, Mark Neil and Scott Wheeler, helped cut the ribbon and inaugurate the Kigali Fab Lab. We even had the opportunity to use the facility to fabricate a few items, including a 3D printed ring. This mini project provided the opportunity to test drive the facility by taking an idea from design through manufacturing during the opening ceremony.

MIT and SOLIDWORKS with President Kagame
Rwandan President Kagame (center) meets with Fab Lab contributors from MIT and SOLIDWORKS including Neil Gershenfeld, Jamie Severson, myself, Mark Neil, and Suchit Jain.

The opening also coincided with the World Economic Forum on Africa in Kigali, which focused on “Connecting Africa’s Resources through Digital Transformation.” The event brought international government and business leaders together to connect on topics critical to the continent’s growth. Among the leaders was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who visited the Fab Lab and conducted an interview with CNN in the maker space (you can see the interview here).

Since the May opening, the Fab Lab is already drawing a number of interesting use cases. Local artists are using the space to fuse traditional skills with modern fabrication technology. The Red Cross and United Nations are taking advantage of the space to design spare parts and elements of drones that will help deliver supplies to isolated refugees. Sustainable Health Enterprises is working to make locally made sanitary products for women more readily available. Other projects include programming Arduinos, which are microcontrollers; creating smart-farming sensors that detect whether crops need water; and designing locks for a food delivery service.

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It’s humbling to see how design, prototyping, and low-scale manufacturing has piqued the interest of a wide range of constituents. SOLIDWORKS will continue to work with the Rwandan government in its education efforts, which will hopefully include more Fab Lab openings by collaborating with MIT. To learn more about the Kigali Digital Fabrication Laboratory, visit http://www.fablabrw.org/.

Gian Paolo Bassi

Gian Paolo Bassi

Gian Paolo is CEO of Dassault Systèmes SOLIDWORKS.