A self-taught electronics and IT engineer in Bukavu, a town on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been building homemade appliances since he was a teenager using scrap electronic components found in rubbish dumps – and now he’s sharing what he’s learned.
Brackley Cassinga was only 11 years old when he started to tinker with things around the house. His father was often away working in a town in southern DRC, Lubumbashi, and Cassinga felt like he had to take over some of his dad’s chores around the house, like fixing appliances when they broke.
I wish there had been someone to teach me, but I never knew anyone with a background in electronics. I was just learning everything by myself, just taking stuff apart and experimenting with different things to see what would happen.
He finds all of the components for what he builds in rubbish dumps in Bukavu. He started off by making battery-powered lamps.
Lots of houses in the community don’t have electricity so I have installed battery-powered lamps in people's houses so they have light.
It was after a trip to Goma to visit his uncle when he was 14 years old that he got his hands on his first book about electronics, which inspired him to build his first FM transmitter. At first it could only send signals up to 50 metres away, but as he kept practising he built a transmitter with a range of 1km. After the transmitter came audio amplifiers, power boosters, inverters for solar systems, regulators and chargers.
When Cassinga left high school at the age of 18, he created a collective of other IT and electronics engineers in Bukavu, which he christened Kwanza Technologies. The group of like-minded engineers work together to build new objects that they give for free to those who need them in the area. Cassinga said that they’ve given out 20 regulators to different households and have designed websites for 25 local businesses. Currently the group is working on building a crowdfunding application in order to help other people find financial backing for their own projects.
Now 21, Cassinga has also been teaching electronics and coding for free to children and teenagers in the town since he was 18 – and all of this with no professional building equipment, and material found on scrap heaps. A local university has approached him to ask him to teach their students, but because he doesn’t have a degree he’s not officially qualified to do so.
Some people say it’s magic. They ask me if the government could actually empower us and develop our work because they want to bring their children here to learn from us.
We teach any age from 12 years old. They come after school or during the holidays and stay from 6am to 2pm. First we have an electronics class where I teach them about basic components and what they can make, and then an IT class where I teach coding and mobile development. I just do it for free. I think if I can share what I know, it will help everyone; you can change communities that way. I think ideas have to be shared.
I know people that want to come and learn from me but I don’t have the resources to teach everything I want to. That’s the problem – we don’t have equipment. We need a milling machine to make holes in circuit boards, and a machine to print circuits on the boards. This is basic stuff that we really need.
At the moment we only use salvaged components. An amplifier only takes me two hours to finish; it’s the salvaging that takes me a long time. I already know how to build it in my brain, I just assemble it. The hard part is finding what I need. Sometimes I think of creating something big but because I don’t have a way of buying components I can’t create it. We’ve started telling people in the community that if they have a radio or a charger that isn’t working anymore they can just give it straight to us.
Cassinga has ambitious plans for his next project. He’s just finished a prototype of a solar-powered lamp, to be used for public lighting. He wants to to go to university - his dream is to go to MIT - to pursue his passion, and then to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo to continue training young people and building technology for his community.