Open AIR Research into the Maker Movement in Africa

A “Maker space” is a collective organization that maintains a workshop for individual tinkering, social learning, and group collaboration on creative and technical projects, generally among adults. This is a location in which creation occurs through interdisciplinary sharing of resources and knowledge. Put differently, a Maker space is a creative laboratory where people with ideas can get together with people who have the technical ability to make these ideas become a reality. A Maker space is often associated with fields such as engineering, computer science, graphic design and digital art, and although the physical space is important, it is the collaboration between individuals with various and distinct areas of knowledge that is fundamental to fostering this creative environment.

Our forthcoming publication titled: “A Framework for Assessing Technology Hubs in Africa” shows that there is great excitement about the promise of information technology on the continent, in part attributable to the proliferation of tech hubs that cater almost exclusively to the burgeoning web/software development community. Whereas, hardware-oriented startup businesses struggle to take-off and scale-up largely due to lack of access to materials and machines for prototyping and fabrication. Imagine you are a software developer hoping to create the next M-Pesa and you realize that your software needs a piece of hardware, for example a point-of-sale machine. Due to the lack of viable local options for prototype and fabrication, such hardware may well end up being imported from India or China at a cost that is prohibitive to most tech startups.
Such concerns led to the establishment of Gearbox, Kenya’s first open makerspace launched in 2013. Gearbox was an initiative of the tech community at the iHub who wanted a space that makes tools and high-tech equipment available to the community who are passionate about creating new technologies and innovative ideas, as an extension of the ideas created. The makerspace plays an important role in increasing access to and lowering costs of off-the-shelf, industrial grade, digital fabrication tools, such as 3D printers. It is expected that the gradual increase of makerspaces on the continent will allow more hardware to be developed specifically for the African market. In addition to Gearbox, our research reveals that there are four (4) other makerspaces in Kenya namely FabLab Nairobi, MakerHub and ARO FabLab.
On Friday 3 March 2017, Maker movement enthusiasts and researchers gathered to discuss the growing African maker movement. The workshop was hosted at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (IERI) at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, South Africa, with support from Open AIR and the Wits University LINK Centre in Johannesburg. Makers from Gauteng Province, Durban and Cape Town featured centrally in the workshop and gave first-hand accounts of their experiences, objectives and plans in building makerspaces. Attendees heard how these spaces are approaching issues of sustainability, innovation/enterprise-scaling, outreach, skills development, and national networking.
This blogger was particularly interested in the University of Pretoria (UP) MakerSpace, run by the Department of Library Services at UP, which is the first library in South Africa to open a Library MakerSpace. During the visit, it was revealed that it only cost 20,000 USD to set up the UP library makerspace, which was quite an eye-opener. Wouldn’t it be possible for more universities in Kenya and across Africa to set up makerspaces? In the case of Strathmore, there is already an active tech community working out of three tech hubs located on campus. This community may benefit greatly from having a makerspace equipped with soldering benches, 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines as well as computers loaded with leading tools for design and rendering models, all in a collaborative space to work.

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