All around the world, Maker Faires bring out an array of inventors, tinkerers and hidden geniuses. Africa recently held its second one in Kenya, but as South Africa’s The Daily Maverick summed it up, the innovative energy in Africa takes a decidedly practical path: “Go to a Maker Faire in New York, Detroit or Dublin and you’ll be dazzled by hobbyists who had the time and inclination to make a shark mobile, kinetic squid sculpture or a solar-powered chariot pulled by an Arnold Schwarzenegger robot. Back home in Africa things are done a little differently. ‘In the West, Maker Faires are mainly for creative types who tinker around in their spare time. But what we find in Africa is that it is much more about practical innovation. It’s about ingenuity driven by necessity. It’s all about creating something that people can try to make a living off of,’ says Ushahidi’s Erik Hersman, one of the organizers of Maker Faire Africa.”
The video above features Robert Mburu, who won the prize awarded by GE. He’ll get to spend three days with GE Chief Scientist Asokan Thangavelu from GE’s Global Research Center in Bangalore, India, where he’ll have the chance to access expertise, advice and counsel on his invention, from a technical and a commercial standpoint. It’s very similar to some of the prizes offered in GE’s “ecomagination Challenge: Powering the Grid,” which is still underway. That 10-week, global contest — which centers on clean technology and the smart grid — offers shots at $200 million in venture capital investments as well as chances to get expert advice from GE’s research and commercial teams.
The practical innovation driving Maker Faire Africa is in perfect sync with the idea of affordable modernization, which is a lynchpin of GE’s strategy in Africa. It’s all about embracing homegrown, grassroots solutions to infrastructure and developmental challenges. But what the Faire does is apply that innovation on a micro-level that has the potential for widespread, inexpensive application. For example, last year’s Faire in Ghana showcased a corn planter that is basically a pole that works like a pill dispenser, planting corn as you go rather than leaning over and pushing in the seed with your thumb, The Daily Maverick noted.
And among the more than 200 inventors at this year’s Faire was windmill maker William Kamkwamba. As Lazarus Angbazo GE President East, West and Central Africa, writes in the essay, “Securing Africa’s Solutions from Africa”: William “built his first windmill out of a spare bicycle turbine, a tractor fan blade, an old shock absorber and blades made from plastic pipes flattened over a fire. Yet the 16-foot creation generated 12 watts of power and lit up his family’s mud brick home, sparking the engineering interest to build a circuit breaker and light switch and eventually attracting villagers seeking to recharge their cellular telephones. Further initiatives saw him build another windmill capable of pumping sufficient water to irrigate the family crops.”
As Lazarus continues: “Local knowledge, expertise and experience play an invaluable role in finding the appropriate solutions, because it is only at that level that the foibles of unique situations are understood and embraced. …Typically, wealth creation and poverty reduction discussions for Africa discount manufacturing, partly due to education or orientation. Highlighting the opportunities for fabrication makes inroads into changing these attitudes. Manufacturing — literally fabrication by hand — is exciting and abundant across Africa from centers sited on dumps where scrap metal is the raw material to more formalized collections of mechanics and repairers establishing shops in the urban core.” He adds: “Essentially, the Maker Faire Africa questions what happens when drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali are put together with those from Ghana and Kenya and resources are added to the mix.”
* Read the full essay by Lazarus Angbazo about Maker Faires
* Read the announcement about this year’s winner of the GE prize
* Read coverage in The Daily Maverick and see their videos
* Visit the Maker Faire website
* Read more Africa stories on GE Reports
* Visit the ecomagination Challenge website