Visionary Africa

From Nigeria’s Veda laptops to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s VMK smartphone and South Africa’s FabLabs, a quiet revolution of innovators, designers, technologists and thinkers are exploring bold new frontiers.

Words Nana Ocran

Over the last few years, with all the big conversations about Afropolitanism and its definitions in and beyond the African continent, one quirky development that seems to have been left out of the conversation is the growing level of can-do, hands-on, and sometimes otherworldly making and tinkering  that’s been going on. The loudly trumpeted tech explosion has definitely changed the tone of African-themed conversation in large parts of the globe – especially with the latest African-produced products like the Democratic Republic of Congo’s VMK smartphone or Nigeria’s Veda laptops. It seems, however, that Africa’s quieter revolution of incidental, or sometimes accidental inventors, dreamers, technologists and thinkers, who are earnestly burrowing away in minimally resourced or improvised workshops seem to exist beneath the more seductive Afropolitan radar of culturally canny bloggers, Afro-rhythmic DJs, or fashionistas styled up in brash prints. From African apps to waste-powered generators, there’s an unmistakable (and far more streamlined) design voice emerging from the continent, and it’s one that’s fuelled by young, young-at-heart and savvy techno-preneurs who are changing the world’s innovation-themed landscape.

South Africa for a start is no slouch when it comes to providing platforms for new technology for a broad audience. Initiatives like the FabLabs (or fabrication laboratories) that are situated in seven provinces, are co-ordinated by Lindi Mophuti, who manages them on behalf of the country’s Department of Science and Technology.

“The labs are a global initiative,” she says. “The name isn’t trademarked in South Africa as such, so no one has ownership over it. The FabLabs are open to all sorts of people depending on the location, so the Free State FabLab has mainly young students as it’s located in a Higher Education institution, while the lab in Soshanguve, a historically disadvantaged area is used by a community of kindergarten kids to community elders.”

These labs are feeding a real hunger that African makers from all walks of life have, to create solutions through experimentation, trial, error and a healthy dose of imagination. It’s perhaps the country’s most marginalised areas that are seeing the most urgent examples of dynamic thinking, “but the problem is the lack of resources and facilities to unlock this creativity,” explains Lindi. “The inventors that I’ve met so far have been frustrated over the past years because of lack of support. Open spaces such as the FabLabs stops many of them giving up to become job seekers rather than job creators, and this is the same in other African countries.”

It’s the basic level problems – usually those linking to environmental, health or security issues – that are what’s influencing the type of creative resourcefulness that’s been spilling out of these labs, and pretty often, it’s a simple back story that leads up to a specific invention.

Lindi: “A young unemployed man noticed that most stores in his area were throwing away unused cardboard boxes. He visited the Kimberley FabLab in Northern Cape and started making recycled cardboard furniture with the CNC router [a computer-controlled shaping machine] that was available. He’s now aiming to start his own small enterprise.”

Solar-powered street lamps (an almost no-brainer enterprise that’s been taken up by individuals and organisations throughout the continent) is another lab project that reached finalist status in the annual South African Bureau of Standards Prototype Design Awards, while another project featured a low-cost safety system to curb the challenges faced by people living in rural and township areas.

“These would be everyday challenges ranging from shack fires to the length of time it takes an Emergency service to respond to a call out to a remote area,” explains Lindi. “Other inventions like talking road sign booklets are all produced using fairly standard FabLab tools. What’s usually available are laser and vinyl cutters, a milling machine, and 3D printers.”

Keeping these tools on hand doesn’t come cheap, and with the labs initially open to the public for free, there now has to be a sustainable shift in strategy, which will ultimately come in the form of ‘a foundation for membership registration and funding from industry’.
A further challenge is to attract more females to the labs. Lindi’s status as the first black woman to manage a FabLab in South Africa is great, but it’s still rare for girls to visit the labs of their own accord. This isn’t just a South African concern, it’s an African one, and it’s why over in Kenya, a powerhouse, geek-chic organisation, Akirachix has set up an online membership of female developers, entrepreneurs, students, engineers, researchers, activists and creatives who meet up for training and mentorship to have their ideas recognised wherever they choose to take them.

Akirachix was set up in 2010 at Nairobi’s iHub – a space for hackers, designers and bloggers – and now has around 200 members whose call to arms – amongst many – is to be ‘positively disruptive’ in a world where female tech skills have pretty much been unsung or underdeveloped. Its president is coder, blogger and tech enthusiast Judith Owigara, who, along with her team of female techies has a longterm goal is to create Akirachix communities throughout Africa.

The continent wide innovation focus has also been harnessed over the last three years by Maker Faire Africa (MFA), a yearly pan-African community of makers ‘that hail from Africa’s tiniest villages to her most expansive burgs’.

Co-founded and curated by Emeka Okafor – a New York-based entrepreneur and African innovation blogger at Timbuktu Chronicles – the MFA bandwagon kicked off in Accra in 2009 and has rolled into Cairo and Lagos so far, spawning a ‘fellowship of creators’ who can interact with each other across African borders and beyond. It’s an arena that this years saw four Nigerian schoolgirls successfully developing urine-powered generators, and a pre-teen who created a mini robotic excavator using plywood, hydraulic cylinders and syringes.

Bit it’s not just hardcore engineering that gets a look in. Playful, artistic and handcrafted talent is also recognised, and local stars from the MFA stable are starting to emerge on the international stage. One such creator is Cyrus Kabiru. His C-Stunner glasses are a sculptural take on ‘real’ spectacles. Big, bold and crafted from found or recycled objects, his theatrical designs have caught the eye of the TED talks community who have selected him as a Fellow for this year’s spring conference in Long Beach, California.

“I never knew that I was a designer or an artist,” Cyrus responds, when asked about his influences. “I was inspired by my dad. He was given real glasses by his father when he was younger. One day he hung on to a lorry, his glasses fell off and were crushed. He was beaten by his mother, and from that time he hated glasses.”

A strange type of inspiration, particularly as his father’s anti-glasses stance meant that Cyrus himself was banned from wearing real glasses in the house. That’s what led to his improvisations, which are now snapped up and end up being displayed as art pieces by most of his customers.

Design and innovation paradigms are shifting throughout the continent in ways that are putting emerging African inventors and organisations on the map. What ultimately works best is when innovation is merged with entrepreneurship, and this is happening more and more within the evolving world of development. One example of this is the Bottles To Buildings project in Nigeria. Set up by Katrin MacMillan, Director of The Africa Community Trust, the project’s first house made entirely from recycled plastic bottles went up in Kaduna in 2011. Used bottles from hotels, restaurants, homes and embassies were collected, filled with earth to form ‘bricks’ and linked at the neck by a network of string. Packed down with a mixture of mud and cement, the curved-shaped bungalows are sturdy, earthquake-proof example of new architectural design. The idea came from a collaboration between Katrin’s organisation and the Development Association for Renewable Energies (DARE) who set out to build solar-powered houses from recycled materials, while training local masons in the bottle-building technique. It’s a wonderful example of business, craft and education working systematically to create something new.

Also in the experimental picture is Ghana’s Ashesi College Robotics Experience, a type of computer-science rally for high schoolers to converge in Accra for workshops and competitions between 17 temporarily rival schools. Last year’s debut event saw winning teams ‘Platinum’, ‘Sharks’ and ‘Determination’ creating robots named ‘Perfect’, ‘Navigator’ and ‘Jigger Bot’ in a science-off that stretched their abilities at building and programming.
This, and the ability to take innovation in any direction, from architecture, to sculpture and sustainable business enterprise is what seals African inventors as fully a part of the Afropolitan experience, which should hopefully see endless partnerships and collaborations happening right across the cultural map, from robotics, to music, film, photography, art and fashion. Can’t wait.

A Change Is Gonna Come

Sites, blogs and people behind Africa’s innovation revolution

Africa Community Trust
A community-led development organisation that runs projects including the creation of bottle buildings and bottle blankets.

Africa Gathering
African ideas and innovations are harnessed by this group that organises global events for like-minded businesses, inventors and investors.

A community of female technologists who take part in networking, training and mentoring.

Ashesi Robotics Experience
The annual robotics rally and workshops forum for Ghana’s computer science students and fans of technology.

Small-scale production factories for technologists, inventors and experimenters in South Africa.

Maker Fare Africa
A yearly pan-African faire for designers and makers. The organisation also runs a Made in Africa film project.

Marieme Jamme
Co-founder of the Africa Gathering innovation think tank, Marieme Jamme is also a blogger, technologist and social entrepreneur.

Timbuktu Chronicles
This excellent blog by Maker Faire co-founder Emeka Okafor highlights Africa and Africans, with a focus on innovation and technology. timbuktuchronicles.

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