FABLab Namibia is Africa’s biggest: Co-founder Wiedow explains the concept
Windhoek – Kirstin Wiedow is the co-founder and director of the first fabrication laboratory (FABlab) in Namibia, a Centre of Excellence at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The centre fosters innovation through knowledge and skills transfer in digital technologies, advanced manufacturing, design thinking and industry 4.0 applications. She studied fashion technology and has over ten years’ experience working in the creative industries in South Africa before relocating to Namibia. She is also one of the youngest directors at NUST.
The lab was awarded the coveted Innovation Excellence Award in 2014 by the Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade and SME Development. FABlab Namibia is the first advanced manufacturing, prototyping and design lab in Namibia and the largest FABlab currently within Africa. The lab was established in partnership with the Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade and SME Development to enhance local product competitiveness, bridge the technological divide through access to information and communication technology (ICT), new machinery, tools, knowledge, skills and equipment – ultimately to give rise to a technologically and creatively advanced local economy in Namibia. With Kirstin at the helm, innovation in Namibia is moving forward in leaps and bounds. It also demonstrates clearly that the new industries don’t care whether you are male or female. If you have an idea, are passionate and want to innovate and be an entrepreneur, right here in Namibia, it is possible. More and more young Namibians are discovering this.
Q: What do you actually do?
A: I would call myself a creative technologist and futurist – as the director of a creative space like FABlab I am a “hybrid” operator. My job is really diverse; it consists of networking with stakeholders across the world and conceptualising and driving the strategic goals of the lab from sourcing of funding to writing research papers, mentoring innovators and even manufacturing products on a daily basis. I also need to trust my instincts and be grounded in all my decisions, yet at the same time be flexible enough to allow our staff to implement wild ideas and be willing to take big risks, when nobody sees potential where you do instinctively.
Q: Do Namibians know FABlab and innovation?
A: Innovation is about seeing potential. Potential in ideas and in people, something that is not nearly nurtured enough in young people. Much of the process is being positive and just believing in someone’s idea and supporting them to give it a go – win or lose. Too many people like to be a “shade” blocking the light for other people’s ideas. As an innovation agent in Namibia it is important to support the person and nurture them as the ideas may not always be the right ones at that time. If the person is nurtured and learns, one day they will succeed when everything is in place. That’s how you drive innovation and create entrepreneurs.
Q: How did you get involved in the innovation field?
A: As co-founder of FABlab, I spent over five years just trying to get people to believe in our idea to implement fabrication laboratories (FABlabs) as spaces that foster innovation and give people the opportunity they need to try and test new ideas and a place where they are not afraid to fail. Since garnering support from the Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade and SME Development we had to design a building and equip the lab in just a few months. Myself and the team had to be more innovative in every possible activity than we ever thought possible, to get things done, I guess you could say – being disruptive. The lab has been open for just over two years and inspiring innovation is what we do. It has been worth it as we have supported over twenty innovators to turn their ideas into tangible products and garnered over N$20 million in private equity investment for them within a year.
Q: What have you learnt about Namibia’s innovation sector/field?
A: I think there has been a lot of movement in this arena for the country and many people are driving the agenda which is great to see. ‘Innovation’ is a real buzzword so sometimes this means that you have fly-by-nights who pop up and try to take advantage of it. I always believe that you need to have proof, proof of concept, proof of innovative activities and with that you can then say you truly are a contributor to innovation in Namibia. It is an exciting time for Namibia and we are glad to be a part of the culture of innovation in the country, specifically altering our agenda this year to drive techpreneurship through which we hope to bridge the technological divide and start producing more technology products locally.
Q: After a busy day innovating, what do you do to unwind?
A: I love my work – I am always working. I am a collector of tattoos and art. Other than that I actually play lawn bowls, love cooking gourmet food and am a geek at heart who loves gaming and graphic novels, manga and anime. Thankfully in this present day and age we can and do embrace our geekiness and use it to our advantage in our work at FABlab.