Let's Talk About the Maker Movement in Africa
The Maker movement is what empowerment looks like. It's all about enabling people to break free from the confines of the-world-as-it-is-presented-to-you and offering instead the-world-as-you-would-make-it. We live in a world of makers -- we always have. We ARE makers. In one way or another, we are all creators, developers, dreamers, and builders.
The Maker movement in Africa has been getting a lot of attention recently. While we may all be makers, though, we're not all the same kind of makers. What we can make, and how we approach the idea of "making," changes depending on where you are in the world and what you can afford. What worries me is the approach some organizations take to this idea of bringing the Maker movement to Africa - as though westerners had invented "making," and "Africa" were a homogeneous spot that could, collectively, take up a movement and run with it. The African continent contains many countries that are filled with all different kinds of makers. Initiatives like Maker Faire Africa are amazing precisely because they recognize a parallel that already exists between the Maker movement and practices with deep roots in many parts of Africa.
My senior thesis in Physics consisted of laboratory work building prototypes of concentrating solar power (CSP) systems, and working on full-scale versions of these systems in Uganda with Empower Design. This work took me to Uganda last January, where I had the opportunity to spend a couple weeks working in a machine shop at St. Martyr's University in Fort Portal, developing CSP systems alongside Ugandan machinists.
I found that the Ugandan machinists on our team were some of the most resourceful people I had ever had the pleasure of working with; they could create anything from anything. They were also curious and collaborative - they wanted to learn, they wanted to teach, and they wanted to do these things together. This is as close to an embodiment of the definition of a "Maker" as I can imagine.
I remember how interested the machinists were in the parabolic mirrors we brought from our lab to demonstrate how hot an object at the focal point would get. They would test the mirrors throughout the day, trying to find the focal point. They tied grass to a mop and positioned it perfectly on the mirror in order to watch the grass burn in the sun. Their tests showed them which reflective material was the most effective, how to tilt the mirror and how to effectively start a fire with the mirror. They did this together, they did this because they wanted to, and they were successful because the idea of making, of understanding materials and their possibilities, was intrinsic to them.
What makes me apprehensive is the idea of bringing or giving technology to African countries, like 3D printers for example. Bringing technology that is manufactured in another country to a developing nation is not sustainable development practice. Buying technology from another country does little to stimulate a local economy - it does, in fact, put local employees out of work. At its core, the Maker movement is based on a DIY attitude. It's centered around a sharing of ideas and an understanding that individuals are more than capable to be creators - in every sense of the word. It's ironic that some initiatives have leapt straight to imported technology before trying out ways to manufacture these machines locally, like this 3D printer that was made from e-waste by Afate Gnikou in Togo. (It honestly blows my mind that more people haven't seen this.) Furthermore, if and when imported devices break, the knowledge and equipment to fix them is less likely to be available locally, forcing Makers in Uganda or Togo to depend on international support - again, not advancing their own economy.
We in the West need to remember that people who live in Africa are just as capable of Making as we are. We need to get away from the "single story" narrative the western world has often assigned to Africa. The Maker movement in African countries is going to look different than the Maker movement in the United States. It should not be our goal to give African countries 3D printers or similar technology built in first world countries - it should be our goal to empower Africans to solve their specific problems with local resources.
The "ideal" Maker movement in Africa does not promote the dangerous components of "aid." It does not give. It empowers - and the way it empowers is through local resources and knowledge that already exists all over the continent.
Biz Yoder is a Junior Project Analyst with Fabernovel. She graduated from Colgate University in May with a degree in Physics and Women's Studies. In October 2015 she plans to travel to Uganda with Mama Hope (www.mamahope.org) to help build a maternity ward in Budondo.