Africa’s remarkable ability to solve real-world problems

Further south, the Cape Town’s Maker Faire had its debuted this year. Its founder Omar-Pierre Soubra, a Frenchman living in the US.

Writen by Yazeed Kamaldien

Illustration: Breeze Yyoko

Further south, the Cape Town’s Maker Faire had its debuted this year. Its founder Omar-Pierre Soubra, a Frenchman living in the US, bought a license to hold the event in the city where he has done business for a number of years.

Soubra describes himself as a “crazy maker” who saw the potential to gather locals under one roof and inspire them. “Maker Faires inspire people. It’s about making something, sharing it and telling people about it,” says Soubra. “It’s for someone who is tinkering and exploring. Creativity and design might be part of it.”

Soubra says the difference between Maker Faires Africa and his license is that the former travels across the continent while his annual outing would base itself solely in Cape Town. The two are run by different people.

“There are 160 Maker Faires around the world. It’s a similar model to TEDx, where events are organised by license holders. We are here to activate Cape Town,” says Soubra.

He says that his idea is to gather makers who are “not afraid to solve big problems”. “They see it as a challenge. Where there is a cause, Makers can rally and get together. Last year there was a maker response to the Ebola outbreak.”

Soubra says makers – those who participate on this platform – are usually driven by “passion and innovation”. Apart from just showcasing inventions, makers could also “run a workshop”.

The inaugural Cape Town event also was designed to stimulate fixing, with tables set up as a workshop filled with broken home appliances. Everybody was encouraged to break apart appliances apart and create something new.

“You bring your old appliance, break it apart and make new things. We saw kids breaking up a microwave to see how it works,” Soubra explains.

Hersman says Maker Faire Africa also has a very different tone to the US events.

“The inventors you find at our events are not hobbyists. They’re entrepreneurs trying to solve real-world African problems. Unlike their counterparts at the US Maker Faires, 90% of the African makers have practical, useful inventions.”

He defines this as “innovation born of necessity. It’s done inexpensively and with what people can find around them. It’s solving real problems, and you can see that in the five Maker Faire Africa events we’ve had since 2009, in and .”

“Making is problem solving,” adds Okafor. “Maker Faire Africa feels that makers are fundamental to solving all manner of challenges, moving away from the theory to what is practical and hands-on is essential if Africa is to develop successfully.”

“Ghana, as the first one, was a real ‘eureka moment’ for everyone, since there had never been such a gathering of like-minded people in one place in Africa,” says Hersman. “Inventors making everything from seed-planting tools to bicycle saws to husking machines to recycled bottle furniture, were all together in one place and we had this incredible energy, recognising what we had and what could be done if the energy was harnessed well.”

“Maker Faire is seen as a launch pad for coming up with a good idea in Africa and getting it known,” says Okafor. “Our hope is that by having these events we are introducing the young and others to the potential in developing physical products and processes. The startups and enterprises are already in evidence ... ”

As a result of Maker Faire, Okafor says the Cairo Hackerspace has since become an incubator; the founders of isheeld launched what became one of the most successful Kickstarter projects in the Middle East, and the Menn Baladha Craft Initiative is building bridges between industrial design and artisans.

Hersman’s advice to young developers and entrepreneurs who are striving to have an impact is to “find a real need and solve it. Don’t listen to people who tell you it can’t be done locally and with the resources around you. Build it and test it in the real world. Figure out a business model and make it work.”

“Interact and foster community,” is Okafor’s advice. “Creating makerspaces is advantageous ... Stage events, build pop-up spaces and hubs. Encourage similar spaces in schools, libraries and other locations that foster creativity. Interact virtually with the growing maker community, regionally and across the globe.”

Arguably the most famous African maker – and Maker Faire graduate – is Malawian William Kamkwamba, whose windmill made from recycled bicycle parts made him world famous and propelled him into an Ivy League university and his current job at design firm IDEO.

Kamkwamba’s brand of can-do attitude epitomises the African tradition of solving problems that Maker Faire aims to highlight.

The maker movement has always been in Africa, Hersman maintains. “While many other parts of the world turned more to factories and larger output modes, we never lost the maker culture in Africa,” he explains. “It was born of necessity: people need to eat and so micro-entrepreneurs and inventors have kept trying to create new things on their own, without having access to the rapid prototyping and larger manufacturing facilities of the more developed parts of the world.”

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