As undergraduates at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Juliet Wanyiri and Marian Muthui realized their good fortune. The engineering students enjoyed hands-on learning opportunities at fabrication laboratories on campus, which were outfitted with essentials such as 3-D printers and milling machines.
This wasn’t the case elsewhere in Kenya. For many budding Kenyan engineers, concepts like artificial intelligence and human-centered design are merely theoretical. When the two women became graduate students at MIT, this gulf appeared even wider.
“Lots of undergraduates who go through the university system in Kenya don’t get to build until their final year. It’s a gap,” Muthui says, noting that MIT provides an environment of creative learning and problem-solving—including hands-on engineering—at every level. “We found a dearth of that in Kenya.”
To fill this gap, the pair founded Mekatilili (formerly Foondi Workshops) in 2016. The educational initiative, named after a historic Kenyan heroine, runs maker workshops for African students, giving them the design and engineering skills to succeed in the job market.
Wanyiri is a Legatum Fellow and graduate student pursuing MIT degrees in both Integrated Design & Management and in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Muthui is a graduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab in the Lifelong Kindergarten group. Mekatilili is supported by the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship and the Media Lab, along with the Technological Innovations for Inclusive Learning and Teaching Lab at Northwestern University.
The roots of Mekatilili can be traced back to the University of Nairobi, where the two women pursued fieldwork funded by the MIT D-Lab, which develops practical approaches to addressing global poverty. Wanyiri focused on improving water sanitation in Brazil, while Muthui worked with Ugandans in remote encampments where people couldn’t safely travel at night. Using a makerspace created by D-Lab, Muthui collaborated with residents to develop—and market—miniature lights. These experiences spurred the women to co-create Mekatilili.
“I was so inspired. I wondered, ‘How can I create access to what I learned and help young people?’” Muthui says.
Before coming to MIT, Muthui was a biomedical engineer at GE, and Wanyiri was an operations systems support engineer at Nokia Networks. They used those professional connections to launch Mekatilili as a series of ad-hoc maker workshops in Kenya. “We were trying to help people become critical problemsolvers using design and electronics,” Muthui says.
With MIT’s support, the pair has since expanded the initiative, recently launching the Mekatilili Fellowship Program, a three-day workshop for undergraduates and young professionals in Kenya that includes a mentoring component. The inaugural program, held in January 2019, received more than 300 applications for 30 openings.
“The aim of the fellowship is to create an avenue in which we mentor students,” Wanyiri says. “A project-based fellowship is impactful for preparing young professionals with critical problem-solving skills for the job market.”
The program matched students with Kenyan companies across three sectors. “Design for accessibility” fellows worked with the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya, using artificial intelligence to develop a preventative maintenance schedule for wheelchairs. “Design for manufacturing” fellows collaborated with AB3D, a 3-D printing and hardware company, on sustainable printing solutions. “Design for agriculture” fellows worked with Twiga Foods, a mobile-based, business-to-business food supply platform, on smart technologies.
Fellows also attended professional development sessions led by the Media Lab. “Companies want people with past experience working on practical challenges,” says Muthui. “Participants have told us that, when they went back to their schools, the fellowship helped them not only with school-related work but also to look for employment.” The program was so successful that the pair aim to expand the model to other countries in 2020. They hope that their work will improve students’ educational experiences—and Africa’s economy.
“Our larger vision for Mekatilili is to play a role on the continent in successfully reinventing manufacturing processes, creating new jobs, and revitalizing markets and regions by developing innovative new products and technologies that transform our daily lives,” Wanyiri says.