Technological Leadership, Not Horsing Around
Solomon King, founder of Fundi Bots at a recent workshop addressing the classroom
Here at Fundi Bots there are two goals that drive everything else- to educate anyone in Uganda who can help advance the technological shift envisioned and to be that technological shift ourselves. Limitations such as a lack of electrical power for days on end, an intermittent internet connection or hard to find commercial sources of electrical components hardly daunt the people I work with. Believe me, nothing will test and develop your teaching skills like continuing with a robotics lesson in a classroom where power has just shut down. Conservation and alternative sources of energy become more than just a good idea. They become an imperative. These types of parameters make it all the more obvious why the R & D side of Fundi Bots is so important and can’t help but grow at an incredibly rate once it’s off the ground. These two goals when combined have the potential to truly propel any country’s interwoven economic, educational and technological systems. The world has seen it happen in America, Germany, the U.K. and the four major Asian Dragon economies, just to name some of the most successful. Each of these economies had more propelling them than simply an increased technological and technological education sector. But no matter the focus of the country, each understood the need to invest heavily in the population’s education. With a young population that understands the long lasting ramifications of educational and technological infrastructure Uganda is poised to join the ranks of countries who have created thriving economical systems through dedication, activity and research, as well as open and honest communication. In the long run the world has shown time and again that in order for an organization or country to reap the best dividends there must be organized and energetic investment in the future of its own people. This type of vision is exactly what Fundi Bots has started over the past few years and the reason I am proud to work with them during their third and fourth years of existence. It is my hope that posting information about these first steps will help other organizations and nations who are attempting a similar transformation.
Transforming lives, one LED at a time
During my first week back in Uganda we covered a wide variety of topics and technology. Eager to cover more ground in the weeks that followed we launched into PCB design, SMD soldering, rework and a programming language we can couple easily with microcontrollers called Processing. There was also some curriculum design, RFID, a trip to the Ugandan Institute for Research of Instrumentation and the biggest project of all, inventory of the haphazardly organized Fundi Space in Solomon’s spare room. In our spare time we ate luscious fresh pineapple, bananas and jack fruit while joking amongst ourselves in the African sun.
Bananas picked from the back yard of the Fundi Space
Bright and early (by tech worker standards, I think it was actually around 10 or 11 AM) on Sunday Victor, Solomon and I squared our shoulders and bravely entered the Fundi Space with the intent of taming the jumble of electronics and tools that had accumulated over the past three years. Luckily I had already completed this task once by myself when I was first hired at SparkFun electronics with their classroom, so I had a plan. We decided to divide the tech into piles such as Input, Output, Tools, Educational Kits, Communication, ICs, Documentation, Mechanical and the always massive Tools category. The first move was to simply separate all the materials into these categories and form piles on the floor. This alone took a couple of days. Once we had our piles everyone grabbed a laptop and tackled a pile by themselves, doing actual inventory entry. Every little item (ok not every single resistor and LED but you get the idea) was entered into an inventory spreadsheet. This way when Fundi Bots is asked to do R & D for a client or a student asks about the feasibility of an advanced project involving specific components Victor can consult his inventory to see if the necessary parts are in stock. It will also help with lab management when people start checking kits out to use on their own.
Tools is always the largest pile when doing inventory this way
Examples of R & D that Fundi Bots is currently undertaking include assistive devices such as distance sensors sewn into textiles to help blind people, an electric wheelchair, entertainment visualization devices to supplement DJ shows, hardware integration with Twitter and green power conversion systems. These are just some examples of the various projects I have seen people pursuing and completing in my short time here. Obviously these are not some wide eyed newbies plugging in LEDs, these are talented creative people pursuing a wide variety of viable products. What makes it even more amazing is that often the prototypes are created using repurposed and reworked electronics instead of freshly sourced Builds of Material. This type of approach leads to a more comprehensive understanding of the tools and materials. If you have to find the parts from an old motherboard you get very good at identifying components either by sight or through usage of tools such as multimeters and oscilloscopes. If you aren’t able to recharge laptops from the outlet for a day or two you become very focused when using the laptop, possibly concentrating on finding alternate power sources. There have been a couple days when I was glad I brought a solar cell that I could plug my cell phone into, especially since my internet connection relies on usage of my cell phone. With the effects of their R & D so tangible I have no doubt that these individuals will continue until they see a sustained success. Just the other day McKenzie Tuhirirwe, who helped me teach Eagle, won third place at the local Hackathon contest with an assistive device. If he continues to develop it he has the opportunity to continue on his path of innovation, this time with considerable funding.
A Fundi works on a PCB prototype, taking the first steps towards a production ready product
Fundi Bots is not the only example of technological leadership in Uganda by any means. One of the local research teams at Makerere University prototyped an electric car in 2011. Capable of driving 50 miles before needing a recharge, this car is an example of technology that has taken a while to catch on in more technologically developed countries but which are being pursued as viable products with a vigor in places like Uganda. Uganda has been using hydroelectrically generated energy since the establishment of the Naluballe Hydroelectric Power Station in 1954 and is in position to lead the sub-Saharan African solar energy endeavor with the completion of their solar power plant. The recent discovery of oil in Uganda may also provide the necessary funding for the initial stage of sustainable growth in technology, education and communal infrastructure. It is my hope that the interests in Uganda will use newer methods to leapfrog the environmental pitfalls that so many technologically advanced nations have inflicted upon the world and their own people. It seems to me that there is the perfect nexus of possibility, energy, need and knowledge to provide a steed upon which the nation as a whole can race towards the future. Often there is the tendency to flog this horse in order to sprint in the beginning of a race, though. I hope that Uganda can take the long view of reinvesting in their education system and run the full length at a steady pace. By joining the race after other nations they can use that to their advantage, watching the stride of the leaders and possibly creating new skills due to their creativity and enthusiasm. After all, it’s hard to retrain an old horse- but while training a new horse who doesn’t know it can’t fly, if you don’t tell the horse it can’t, sometimes you wind up with a pegasus.