Immediately after you set foot in the second floor hall of the General Electric office, which accommodates the GE Lagos Garage program, you will know it is a factory of some sort. The low hums of the 3D printers all emphasize the “techie” atmosphere. One thing that may not be obvious is that apart from innovative 3D creations growing inch by inch in the printers, brilliant entrepreneurial minds are also being groomed.
The GE Lagos Garage is basically a skills building programme that is sponsored by General Electric. The idea is to teach people how to manufacture products using next generation manufacturing technology like 3D printers, laser cutters and to build manufacturing capacity on the continent.
The Garage was launched about two years ago in a couple of different places. Each place had a different focus; but in all of the countries in which it was launched, it was truly a skill building programme.
Rich Tanksley, the GE Garage Lagos Program Manager revealed that the program was initially launched in Nigeria in 2014. Focused on entrepreneurship and business development at the time, the program recorded a lot of successes including a locally made reading light for people specifically in Africa, where there are power issues, so that school children could read their books at night.
“Based on the success of that, GE wanted to extend the programme so they did some more research, got some more resources together, got some printers on board and launched it again,” he said.
The program was re-launched on November 22nd. Although it still retained its entrepreneurship side, this time the programme focused a little more on the next generation manufacturing technology, especially the 3D printers. Therefore, everyone in the most recent edition of the programme came with product ideas that could come to life using 3D printers.
Even though the programme itself does not provide grants or 3D printers for participants at the end, it connects the graduates with investors.
“At one time, we had about fifteen investors from Silicon Valley who came and were interested in investing,” said Rich Tanksley, who has worked on several successful startups in Africa.
“We have lots of local investors that are interested. Part of our job is to help get them to a point where they have a business model, they have a prototype, and they have a client. If you have that and you go to an investor and say, ‘All I need is $3,000, a printer and I am ready to go,’ who is going to say no?”
The reputation built by GE over the years would also work for each of the graduates because people know the core values of the organisation.
The unreliable electric power supply in Nigeria would not be a drawback for the graduates, since the 3D printers use very little electricity.
“Those 3D printers use less electricity than a microwave oven and you can run them right there off one solar panel and inverter,” Tanksley explained.
The organisers believe that opportunities for manufacturing in Africa is inexhaustible and as the program continues to churn out more success stories, Africa will be self-sufficient in terms of manufactured goods.
There are strong reasons to believe that. Young men and ladies at the GE Lagos Garage program displayed their aspiration to make Africa a hub of manufacturing pretty soon. The response to the initial call for participation was an impressive 1,500 people. Thereafter, 50 people with the most brilliant ideas were selected for a pitch and 25 people with the most scalable projects were eventually picked. Some of them already had prototypes too.
Anjolaoluwa Badaru, one of the participants has always wanted to improve the manufacturing landscape in Nigeria. That was why he quit Computer and Information Technology Studies − which his parent made him sign up for − only a year to the end of the program in a private university. He then re-enrolled in another school, Federal University Of Technology Akure, to study Industrial Designs which is closer to the Mechanical Engineering education he really wants.
During the five years that followed, Anjola would visit the auto mechanic’s workshop to learn about automobile parts in practical terms. He also learned to design virtual prototypes of automobile parts, so when the opportunity came to apply for the GE Lagos Garage program, he brought one of the most brilliant ideas among the hundreds who applied. With that, he was able to make the final 25 participants. He believes the program is exactly what he needed to put him on the very best pedestal to achieve his dreams of manufacturing in Nigeria.
“The Garage has given me the opportunity to turn the many ideas and sketches to reality,” Anjolaoluwa Badaru said.
Badaru, who excitedly displayed his brake pad prototype fresh out of a 3D printer, believes that Nigerian car lovers should not be stuck with a few particular brands of automobiles because of the availability of parts. He holds that car lovers in Nigeria should be given a choice based on their style and taste.
“So I hope to make custom parts for vehicles and build a business around it,” he added. “It doesn’t have to be very complex at first. If I can start it, other people would key into the vision.”
Seun Osunkoya, a recent Mechanical Engineering graduate from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife had always been fascinated with the idea of 3D printing. Though the fascination started as a mere fantasy, it started taking shape during her final year in the University when she had to decide on a final year project. Then Seun Osunkoya, who at the point of entering the university, changed her mind from studying medicine to become a doctor because she could not stand the sight of blood, found out that there is nothing hidden about 3D printing. Instead of making a prosthetic arm, she decided to make a 3D printer.
“There are lots of resources about the 3D printer, especially from the U.S and China, but it is not popular in Nigeria. So if people from other parts of the world could just make the printer by themselves, then I can make it too,” she explained.
A small 3D printer costs around $500 to $2,500, which runs into several hundreds of thousands of Naira, Nigeria’s currency. So Osunkoya rationalised that if she could just make one from local materials, then work on improving it and reducing the cost, it would contribute significantly to the manufacturing industry in the country.
“The 3D printers here at the Garage cost about $25,000, but the one I made for my final year project, cost only N80,000 (about $200),” she said. She hopes that with her experience at the GE Garage, the cost could be further reduced.
Osunkoya now sees a wide market for 3D printers in Nigeria and she wants to explore it. She also believes manufacturing technology should be demystified early enough for the younger generations of Nigerians so she is targeting elementary and secondary schools with the 3D technology. With that, the country can tap into the creativity of its younger generation at the earliest possible time. She not only wants the younger folks to know how to operate the printer, she also wants them to make the machines.
One may be tempted to think everyone at this edition of GE Garage would be engineers or industrial designers, but Juliet Alu does not fall into either of those categories. She is a graduate of English from the University of Abuja and she represents the fashion industry at the GE Lagos Garage. She is an avid supporter of the #BuyNaijatoGrowNaira movement, thus she is keen on making people appreciate products made in Nigeria. After working in the real estate business for a while, Alu’s love for fashion saw her holding down a part-time job as a fashion designer while she was in school.
At a point however, she realised what she really loved in the fashion industry were the shoes. So she struck up a friendship with a local shoemaker around her home in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Her desire to promote Nigeria’s local fashion industry – especially the shoemaking subsector – reached its peak when she visited a tannery in Kano, a northern city in Nigeria. There, she realised that high end international designers such as Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren get some of the leathers used in their products from Nigeria.
Now determined to export finished ‘made in Nigeria’ products, instead of raw materials, she enrolled formally to learn shoemaking from her friend. After only six months, she was making men’s slippers. Gradually, she started designing and making other types of shoes.
“So I want to make customised heels and customised soles so that Nigerian fashionistas can get what they want in Nigeria, not having to travel abroad to buy finished products of Nigeria’s raw materials,” she said brandishing a sample heel fresh out of the 3D printer like bread out of an oven.
In the end, while 3D printing itself is relatively new, both the organisers and participants of the GE Garage agree that it is a technology that is fast catching up throughout the world. If Nigeria latches onto it and can make good use of it, it will leapfrog its manufacturing industry into an excellent position to compete globally.
Succinctly illustrated in the words of the Programme Manager, GE Lagos Garage, “when you are on the beach in a coastal African country, you see all those ships sitting out there waiting to go to the port. They are carrying products usually made in China to sell to you. Almost all of those products you can make locally. In the future, those ships would not be carrying products anymore, they will be carrying the filaments that go into 3D printers until the market gets big enough and you start recycling all the plastics into the filaments. There is no reason why all these things that spend three months at sea are brought the whole way while it can be made locally.”
Fortunately, a new class will begin soon. More people will participate and the door to the garage will remain open for everyone who has passed through it.