Peter Mbiria’s nexus of genius lies in his bedroom in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s here that he locks himself in for days, completely immersed in his mechanical creations. Time is a blur, with no defined hour for waking or sleeping and only the cutting, welding, and plying of metal and wires to mark the passage of hours.
The 24-year-old’s mad scientist routine began in 2011, when, after Kenyan technical universities rejected him over poor grades, Peter thought his dream of becoming a robotics engineer was shattered. He’d grown up watching his father, a mechanical engineer, fix electronic gadgets and bring materials home to work on hobby projects, and he aspired to do the same. But after Peter saw the first installment of the Transformers movies and read an inspiring Bible verse (Matthew 7:7) encouraging him to “ask, seek, and knock for answers”, he had an idea: he could teach himself to build robots, starting with a 4×4 remote-controlled car.
“I wanted to create something that would cause a ‘wow’ factor when someone sees it,” he recalls.For six months, he carved out a personalized routine. He’d work nearly every hour of the day, using simple tools—a hammer, hacksaw, snip, vice, geometric compass, and pliers—and plenty of trial and error. With the 2,000 shillings (USD 23) fronted by his parents, he bought spare parts of motors and cables from stores selling electronic scraps.
Morning after morning, he awoke with new ideas for a prototype design. He didn’t have access to CAD drafting software, so he’d cut out and bend sheets of metal, toss out anything that didn’t work, and start fresh. As he progressed, he continuously hit new obstacles.
“I would power the car, and it would melt or blow up in flames,” Peter remembers. Each time, he dismantled the whole component and began anew. He had to change the main engine five times.
When Peter got frustrated in moments like these, he would ride his bicycle to a nearby forest and lie on the grass, face up to the clouds, and empty his mind. Or he’d pedal to a garage and study the mechanics at work or visit a road construction site to watch the forklifts and grinders. Most of the time, he returned with fresh ideas for his car.
Then it was back to the drawing board, working for 72-hour periods with only an occasional nap or bike break. R&B and hip-hop music pumped through the speakers that hang in each corner of his bedroom. “Provided that I have music in the background, I am good,” he says. “It has to deliver the kind of [buzz] I want.”Eventually, when his body would cave in and his concentration waned, he’d sleep for a six-hour stretch. He went days without showering and finally stopped to wash when he couldn’t stand his own smell. The only time Peter was aware of the hour was when his mother popped in with food, which he wolfed down while he worked.
Finally, he got the remote-controlled car to function. On a single shaft, he connected four motors that were powered separately but worked in synchrony. Then he took his car to the same universities that turned him away a year earlier. After a second visit, the Technical University of Kenya accepted him; last August he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.
Peter continues to go on creation benders when he’s fashioning new gadgets from spare parts and toy pieces. He alternates what he’s working on—robots, taser guns, cars—depending on what he can achieve with his meager budget.
“To get an actual tool at times would cost me 50,000 shillings (USD 575),” he says. Peter can’t afford that, so he improvises to keep up with his creative pace.
He straightens iron sheets with a hammer and cuts them with a knife fashioned from a hacksaw blade. He uses a protractor and a 30-centimeter plastic ruler from a stationery store, which he replaces frequently because the knife slices the ruler when he’s tracing lines. Peter occasionally uses his father’s vice to bend scrap metal.
“I was really inconveniencing my dad when I would walk in and ask him for tools that he was in the middle of using. He eventually bought me my own toolbox,” he recounts, chuckling.
Since graduating, Peter has continued to improve on his original car design, turning it into his own ‘transformer’, replete with a sheet iron body that opens up to reveal the car’s inner mechanics. He now interns at the IBM Research Lab in Nairobi and prototypes aerial drones and other gadgets.
“Everything that I get a hold of has to turn into something meaningful, even if it appears as waste.”