In a glittering ceremony in Skhirat, Morocco, three African innovators emerged as winners in the annual Innovation Prize for Africa competition. The African Innovation Foundation, which organizes the event, focuses on identifying homegrown and scalable innovations that address local problems in Africa. From Foufoumix (a kitchen appliance to replace a mortar and pestle in fufu food preparation) to mimosa pudica solar (which generates electricity from a weed), they are cultivating a network of grassroots innovators of different levels of experience who offer new ways to fix problems in their communities.
Designers like these have been historically neglected by African policymakers because of the largely unconventional nature of their enterprises. So despite Africa’s recognition as a land of relentless ingenuity with revered tradition of local creativity, the records for taking those sparks of genius to the next level has been discouraging.
In the last few years, though, the continent has been experiencing a redesign across its major cities with strong civic participation in making and building things. These activities are happening in people’s homes, and places which the enthusiasts call makerspaces or hackerspaces. With ubiquitous computing power, freely available APIs, platforms on the web for sharing, and cheap tools like 3-D printers and lasers, the Afrimakers as they are called (or “makers” for short) are finding it easier to demonstrate their ideas. What is unfolding is a virtuoso system with a “started in Africa” mind-set that could potentially remake what Africans buy. This is especially exciting because it empowers people to use their local expertise, know-how, and hands-on skills to solve problems that exist in their daily lives.
In my conversations with these young people through my work in my nonprofit, we see a new generation of Africans inspired to take the future in their hands. They want development to be Africa-led and Africa-driven. They want to transform consumers into creators and replace, where possible, the usually foreign obfuscated products imported into Africa with homegrown alternatives. From Nairobi to Dakar, they are creating innovation ecosystems where people can congregate to design appropriate solutions for local problems. They are part of the global Maker Movement, a term for open-minded independent inventors, hobbyists, designers, and tinkerers with a convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans, which has grown in sophistication from embroidery to robotics. This movement has fused more than 200 innovation hubs with thousands of enthusiasts going on their annual pilgrimages to Maker Faire Africa.
And it’s not just experienced workers who are getting involved. HacKIDemia has launched in Africa with a goal to enable makers, especially kids, to develop sustainable projects and use making to solve local challenges and create an exchange of best practices. HacKIDemia is awarding fellowships to some selected makers who will be expected to train others in their communities. All the projects are documented and freely shared in the community.
While it is very early to assess the impact, it is already clear that these makers offer a platform for a new economic system that taps into the brainpower of Africans to seed shared prosperity. The problems to solve in the continent are plentiful — clean water, energy, health care, and food processing. Makers want to create solutions that are appropriate for these challenges. If they succeed, Africa will exert greater importance in the world. Consider the wonders of Kenya’s seamless payment system, M-PESA, for example, that enables a mother to pay a child’s school fees on her way to the farm, instead of wasting hours in the bank — an issue that’s especially important to African workers who aren’t working in an office setting. Or look at BitFinance, a Zimbabwean start-up, that is building an ATM machine with an interface that allows mobile money, Bitcoin, and cash. This is an opportunity most Western innovators wouldn’t see; with mobile money adoption low in most western countries, it’s unlikely that typical ATM vendors would make such machines.
But the makers’ ideology goes beyond electronics and software. Last year while leading a cluster mapping project, I met a group of graduates who had mastered how to refine crude oil in Nigeria. They built a “refinery” inside a bush and through trial and error came up with the right temperatures to heat drums of crude oil for kerosene, diesel, and gasoline. The ingenuity was severely diminished because they had to illegally puncture pipelines to get the crude oil, and the government will destroy the “technology” once it is discovered. They believed if given a license, they will perfect their technologies over time and provide fuel to their communities where scarcity is common. Right there, I saw a significant challenge of the African makers: getting people to take them seriously — including governments and even their competitors.
We need to encourage and support these African innovators. An emerging era of collaborative and digital fabrication could reshape how products are made and sold in the continent, and the rise of Africa’s makers can affect lifestyles, commerce, and industry in the continent as a whole. It will enable people to appropriately employ themselves and earn better lives, instead of relying on subsistence-level occupations. The top-bottom enterprise model that mass produces and ships products into Africa without local consideration will be rethought. Increasingly the local players will have capacity to build things just as BitFinance Zimbabwe is doing for the ATM. Last, customers will become co-designers and co-producers for products they buy. The opportunity for African makers could be further customizations of already existing successful products in the market in areas and places they may not readily create their own.
As the continent looks for ways to diversify its economy, the makers offer a compelling platform for support. The industrial system with a company’s production and design centrally controlled in R&D houses are being reexamined, so that production can be more distributed and designs can incorporate the input of consumers. This global redesign provides opportunities for local makers who are hoping to shape the future with new products, new exports, new industries, and new possibilities that build a more sustainable African economy with shared prosperity. For companies that sell in Africa — especially the multinationals — they need to see working with the makers as part of a strategy to be competitive in Africa. The opportunities lie in forming partnerships with these makerspaces to get better insights for new products and how to efficiently reach new customers.
The makerspaces effervescence is real. Now’s the time to encourage and align with those efforts.Go to Source