Just 8 months ago, I was finishing up my undergrad in Civil Engineering, while organizing students to start an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter at the University of Prince-Edward-Island. I had also applied for the Long Term Fellowship Program and was excited to have an interview with Kwangu Kwako Ltd (KKL)! At the time, KKL was a brand new EWB venture, so I had never heard of them before. My first step was to Google the company and learn more about it before the interview. My second step was to Google translate Kwangu Kwako in attempts to figure out how to pronounce it. In the interview, I ended up waiting for Simon and Winnie to say the name first so I didn’t garble up the name too badly. Phew!
Less than a week later, it was confirmed: I was going to be Kwangu Kwako’s first EWB fellow! Before I could get on the flight to Kenya, I still had five final exams and three weeks of pre-departure training in Toronto to complete. Not to mention all the vaccinations, check-ups, passport updating, visas and goodbyes! But I wasn’t going to let anything get between me and this incredible opportunity. I pushed through and got it all done.
I arrived in Kenya on May 4th with only a small backpack and one duffle bag…to last me a year. With 5 years’ experience in the Canadian Military, I had gotten pretty good at packing light and figuring out what I need and don’t need. I think one of the first comments from Simon was: “That’s it!? That’s all you brought?” to which I said, “Yup, there’s a sleeping bag, steel-toed boots and a motorcycle helmet in the duffle too.” I got a good laugh at the expression on his face! I still believe I’ve packed all I really need.
Simon and Winnie were extremely helpful when I got on the ground. They had provided me with several options for places to stay and allowed me to take my time as I settled into the Nairobi life. Coming from the outskirts of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, a town with a mere 35,000 people, I had already experienced one form of culture shock during the training in Toronto. Nairobi was a whole new level though with all its hustle and bustle. I think the hardest thing to adjust to was the traffic. I don’t think I’ll ever fully adjust to it, it’s madness!
Once I got down to business and figured out my role as Product Design and Manufacturing Manager, I was introduced to the infamous chicken shed (our current manufacturing facility) and KKL’s prototype. I was thoroughly impressed with the house’s structural stability; it is built with multiple structural redundancies, so if one component of the house fails, there are others to maintain its structural integrity.
Another key feature of the product is the security offered; this is invaluable in a place that is nicknamed ‘Nairobbery’. When I first tried to open the door, I was confused by the funny locking mechanism; it works by sticking your hand through the door and blindly finding the keyhole for the padlock inside. I learned the value of this feature first-hand when my apartment was broken into just a few weeks later. Despite living in a gated apartment, with 24hr security, this still happened; having this sort of locking mechanism would have prevented the robbers from taking a hacksaw to my padlock. I couldn’t imagine living in a space where your only form of security is a mabati house made of flimsy iron sheets held together with a few nails. This is the reality for the people we are serving.
The chicken shed was a bit intimidating for me at first; my first project was to turn this 7mx12m shed into a fully-functional manufacturing facility and warehouse, capable of producing enough panels for one house every day. After a week or two, I had the panel-making process figured out. It was now time to come up with some designs that made the best use of the small space we had, made even more interesting by the fact that there are bush poles every 8 feet holding up the structure.
After making some computer drawings of the shed and going through countless configurations of stacking systems and workflow analysis, we finally decided on a design. A friend of Simon’s generously donated some materials from his workshop that he was clearing out. What proved the most useful were the A-frames made of solid steel. We took the A-frames to a local welder named Kioko and made some slight modifications to them so they could carry more panels; now they can each hold 10 molds, so 50 molds all together. There is room for more in the shed, but right now this is sufficient for our manufacturing needs.
Another project I had worked on was changing the roof to satisfy customers’ wants and needs. The old roof functioned well, however, it used an excessive amount of timber and left gaps above the panels for ventilation. Initially, we thought people would appreciate the ventilation gaps, but instead, they were perceived as detrimental to the health of tenants since they allowed cold air in at night.
After receiving that feedback, we went back to the drawing board. We added a layer of panels at the back of the house and filled the gaps along the side with panels cut at an angle. This new design really added to the appeal of our house: it not only closed the gaps, it also added some height to the ceiling which opened up the space and made for a cleaner overall appearance.
Kwangu Kwako is truly something that I am excited to be a part of. I knew after I graduated from engineering that I didn’t want to lock my future down in an engineering firm, where the main interest is putting money in their own pocket. At Kwangu Kwako, I am working for a company where I get to use my engineering design experience to improve the quality of life for less privileged people AND I get to work under Simon, who has 25 years’ experience in the construction industry. I hit the jackpot!
Moving forward I have a few projects I am working on. These include analysing the temperature difference between our house and a Mabati, a fire test (my inner pyromaniac is excited for this one), a steel roof option, a two-story option and manufacturing streamlining. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on future Kwangu Kwako updates!