Makerspaces in Africa

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Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster:

"Fixer practices are also quite prevalent in African countries--not as a political rebellion against planned obsolescence, but rather due to economic necessity: the expense of new devices, the paucity of products or even replacement parts, and as a means of employment. This puts hacker and maker practices in some African countries at an interesting juncture, as “making do” craft skills and economic necessity intersects with the democratizing politics of questioning top-down technosocial practices and informing innovation. The “fixer” side of maker/hacker cultures are geared toward regenerating value in objects on a local scale. This side is very prevalent in two of the African sites we visited in Ghana, the Creativity Group in Kumasi and the QAMP group in Accra, as will be discussed shortly. Similar to the findings of Foster’s work on US hacker and makerspaces, these groups and others in Africa have complex ecologies, politics and cultures.

For the purposes of this essay, we will focus on the African counterparts to makerspaces, which have been accelerating in popularity and prevalence across many different countries and groups. While they align themselves under the general ethos of bricolage, skill-sharing and creative collaboration among many different interests, they are also locally and culturally situated. From preliminary research conducted in Ghana, and our communications with other groups/places/spaces, it is clear that the fixer mentality is far more deeply entwined with the fabrication and making mentality in the African continent than in the US or Europe.

This became immediately evident in our conversation with DK Asare-Osseo of the QAMP project in Accra; he remarked that as soon as he first heard of makerspaces he immediately recognized the African scrap-yards populated by fabricators and fixers as their predecessors; he too noted a deeply entrenched cultural value around repair and making do with what is at hand. Contemporary cultural connections are also continually remade; for example in reply to a question about ablution in relation to toxic waste exposure, DK noted that many of the poor working in Accra now come from Islamic roots, and hence had a strong presence in the scrap yards.

Another example of generative traditions that blur both the fixing/making and traditional/contemporary lines would be the famous wire toys that can be found throughout the African continent. Davison and Skotnes (1986) note that analogous toys made from natural materials could be found prior to colonialism: for example in southern africa, bovine clay figurines were toys in traditional cattle herding cultures areas where wire cars are found today. As locals shifted from pastoral to industrial economies, both the object of reference (from cows to cars) and materials utilized in labor (wire for shipping, fixing and other applications) shifted along with it. Peffer (2009) examines the prevalence of wire toy copies of the police trucks used in the brutality of Apartheid surveillance and enforcement; in the context of DIY protest artifacts these children made these copies as a means to explore and in some cases gain a sense of mastery over their oppressors. Today African wire toys can be found in many African nations; they have become so iconic that in some places their manufacture is largely for the tourist market. At the same time they have become a part of international Maker lore, appearing in Make magazine, Afrigadget and other popular forums (e.g. Brucker-Cohen 2009).

Cultural connections have also been noted in Senegal’s Colobane market, where “making do” (se débrouiller) with repairs and salvaged materials can signify a collective ethos with spiritual resonance. Grabski (2014) quotes Colobane resident Aminata Diop: “”You know God has given the Senegalese people something, whatever we can see we can fix. Whatever we see broken we can make it work again.”” Schaller de la Cova (2013) notes that many Senegalese now use the term Góorgóorlus, the Wolof name of a family in a comic who is constantly making-do, as an indigenous translation for “recycling, repairing, mending, reusing, scrimping, and stretching... The world of góorgóorlus is one in which cracked plastic lawn chairs and calabash gourds are sewn together, not thrown away, where shoes are polished nightly because the dirt and the sand of neighborhood streets quickly dirties even the most shiny, rich leather with a coat of brown, white, or red dust” (pg 224). The term plays on the noun góor--man/male in Wolof--and Schaller de la Cova suggests that the connection is implying the duties of a family provider to improvise in the face of challenges.

While the corner repair stores of the US declined to almost non-existence, such that the Fixers movement seems to be only possible as an offshoot of makerspaces, or at least a new flexibility made possible with contemporary electronics, this relationship may be reversed in Africa. Ghana in particular has a rich informal economy of street vendors who will sell new wares, but also fix cell-phones, printers, and other electronics with complex circuitry. They learn their highly refined skills through attachments (or internships), and then aspire or move on to owning and running their own shops. In this vein, many self-described hacker or maker groups of Africa are geared toward preservation practices and the creative reuse of waste. They are simultaneously pulling the warp of innovation geared toward the future while also weaving in the weft of repair practices already deeply entrenched in their cultures.

This melding of a global Maker movement with localized skills, knowledge and mindsets opens rich possibilities. Repair cultures uphold an ethos of stabilizing feedback that works to keep waste at bay. Meanwhile, the positive loop of innovation, open source technology development and the establishment of makerspaces in which to gather and share ideas disrupts and creates new ways to think about and reinterpret the possibilities of repair and waste. The snake bites its tail; fractal complexities grow as one-to-one skill-sharing builds up to small working groups, networked together as a makerspace or tech-hub, and ultimately perhaps a community of makerspaces that share materials, practices and projects." ([1])



Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster:

"iSpace is located in downtown Accra and is a place for local creators and innovators to meet-up and work on their projects using a collective space and some shared tools. It has been host to civic hack-a-thons, including a hack4good event in July of 2014 which brought together individuals with expertise in computer programming, information technology, the medical world and beyond to work on local problems within the field of medicine. The goal of the meet-up was to have technologists talk to medical workers to find out their needs in terms of an opensource IT platform. The dialogues that transpired also made the technologists aware of the different special knowledges to formulate helpful technologies for their local communities. The iSpace initiative is focused on building local economies, but they are also invested in helping to foster alternative educational practices and skill-sharing beyond these innovation endeavors (About iSpace). They hope to build skillsets and possible economies from the ground-up to ensure local economic stability and growth, one hub at a time. The founders of iSpace, Fiifi Baidoo and Josiah Eyison, have IT and entrepreneurial backgrounds, and they are supportive of both open source code and a kind of spatial open source; they see community-oriented spaces built from the ground-up as equally essential. There is a recognition across African countries regarding the importance of these places and their malleability for supporting various initiatives. Josiah Eyison is confident in the Ghanaian people to create change from within, and generate more value through creative practice, focusing on ground-up technological transformation instead of hoping for policy or governmental action from above to foster technological development.

There is, of course, a double-edged sword in the independence of these initiatives: a neo-liberal ideology would jump upon these programs as justification for withdrawing government support. However once we start thinking of generative justice as orthogonal to the ideological spectrum, we can see how both conservative and liberal political perspectives can be held accountable for providing support. Meyer (2014) for example notes that the issue of Net Neutrality--preventing internet service providers from charging variable rates depending on use or content--has attracted supporters at both ends of the spectrum. Research on policies for supporting generative justice -- legal support for open source, institutions for fostering civic organizations, public use spaces, etc.--are both unexplored and critical to advancing its spread." ([2])

Tech Needs Girls

Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster:

"Tech Needs Girls is another Ghanaian, educationally focused group that speaks to the generative justice ethos and was working from iSpace for some time. Mainly based in Accra and Kumasi, Tech Needs Girls focuses on breaking down barriers to computer programming and IT education for underprivileged girls. Ruby on Rails workshops are taught by female mentors, pushing against the sexist mentality that women cannot navigate computers or should not be involved in technological development. Tech Needs Girls supports this endeavor by directly putting the technology in question in the hands of eager, and driven young women who are typically not allowed such chances. The workshops are geared towards teaching girls to create technology and content that is contingent and inclusive of their own realities, giving them voice and a stake in the value of possible technical manipulation, and thus creating their own value educationally and otherwise.

Tech Needs Girls is also working to establish satellite organizations throughout Ghana. Instead of relying on bringing these practices into the formal classroom setting, although they would like to, they are currently working with local university students who want to be mentors and help start workshops and programming on their own terms. As Eyison of iSpace has noted with the difficulties of instigating change at the top-down governmental and policy level, Tech Needs Girls recognizes that it is difficult to transform long-standing school bureaucracies. By helping to facilitate bottom-up and generative skill-sharing and educational structures, Tech Needs Girls is empowering often marginalized groups who can go on to teach greater numbers of girls, thus generating a network of support for innovation and skill-sharing." ([3])

CoCreation Hub in Nigeria

Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster:

"Another group that is socially connected to iSpace, albeit geographically distant, is the CoCreation Hub in Nigeria. Much like iSpace, they are dedicated to fostering local start-ups to bolster the local economy. They have a similar focus on skill-sharing and educational practices, mostly with open source hardware equipment such as the Raspberry Pi. Although originally focused on LEGO mindstorms for robotic educational practices, their group is considering a move to using Rapberry Pi in afterschool programming, since it is more affordable and malleable with an open source format (Bot Club). These groups are interested in fostering entrepreneurial practices through networking and skill-sharing, but they are also geared toward educational practices that are locally contingent and invested in how future local economies might grow and sustain themselves." ([4])

Creativity Group Kumasi

Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster:

"The Creativity Group is based out of KNUST in Kumasi, co-founded by two KNUST alumni Jorge Appiah and Papa Kwadwo Wonkyie Mensah, but it is fully run by currently enrolled KNUST students who control the direction and flow of its projects. Creativity Group is focused on creating appropriate and sustainable technologies out of available parts, typically from e-waste. Often these technologies have educational merit, are open source, and focused on fostering knowledge sharing and hands-on learning. Members come from many different academic backgrounds and are invested in learning different skillsets from one another through the creation of innovative and value-creating technologies. Due to their varied disciplinary backgrounds, students would not typically mix at the University level. Thus, they created this group separate from the institution and as a grassroots endeavor to further guide their own educational interests.

Some of the Creativity Group’s projects include an educational student kit, High Altitude Balloon Testing, and raising awareness of problems involved in E-waste disposal practices (“Projects,” Creativity Group). They have also engaged local Kumasi communities beyond the University, and many members have partnered with fabricators working out of Suame Magazine. Suame Magazine is a market-place for acquiring second-hand parts and is home to many machine-technology fabricators and fixers who have acquired their skills through attachments beyond or instead of a formal engineering education. Other projects and studies are also being conducted to create more interaction between university engineer students and traditionally trained informal sector fabricators, with initiatives reaching as far back as the 1980s (Waldmann-Brown et al. 2013)." ([5])

Agoblogoshie Makerspace Platform

Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster:

"Similarly, the QAMP (Agoblogoshie Makerspace Platform) group brings many knowledges, practices and local issues into play for their project. They are helping to foster more sustainable (both economically and environmentally) scraping techniques within Agbogbloshie, which is located in downtown Accra and is the largest e-waste site in West Africa, possibly in the whole African continent. They focus heavily on the bricolage motif, using the materials at hand to create open structures and technologies for processing materials. The QAMP group is creating a platform or vehicle for something we have termed generative waste.

Generative Waste plays off the classic conception of generative justice by considering the socially viable possibilities coming out of waste regimes. Tying into the Fixers’ Collective push against planned obsolescence, this conceptual and methodological framing works with what one might consider marginal material for the possibilities of new networks and new systems of use. It also invokes Donna Haraway’s work in complicating the nature/culture/machine divide and Stacy Alaimo’s ‘transcorporeality,’ by recognizing that in the end, we become waste and waste becomes us as we move through and interact with it on a daily level (Haraway 1991; Alaimo 2010). In this vein, QAMP is working to generate further cultures, economies and possibilities for education through remediation practices of a hazardous site - cycling through waste for positive feedback in a space that is based upon the negative feedback of trying to mediate, lessen and repair waste that has been thrust upon it. While instigating new practices, they are working with scraping communities that have been working at Agbogbloshie for 10-20 years, planning a future with instead of against their needs. Already, their working group has helped to explore new ways to extract copper from cables and wiring, as well as safe forms of plastics processing on site (QAMP).

This is not to romanticize the e-waste site at Agbobloshie. Clearly, greater systemic mechanisms must change in order to fully ameliorate the situation within its geographic bounds and beyond. The environmental hazards are many and very dire, something which the QAMP group hopes to bring attention to and map (Caravanos et al., 2011; Goutier 2014). Yet, by tapping into maker/hacker and community-driven knowledge-sharing practices, the Co-PIs of the QAMP initiative (DK Osseo-Asare and Dr. Yasmine Abbas) are working in conjunction with local students and scrapers to reform the landscape and its viability as a more safe and fulfilling work-site.

They also hope to bring attention to practices such as those at the Agbogbloshie site and Suame Magazine that have always already been in the realm of making, hacking and repair before the so-called ‘Maker movement’ was even established. DK Osseo-Asare asserts that it is all well and good that other hacker/maker groups are interested in bringing outside technologies such as MakerBots and Arduinos into the mix of possibilities, but that they also need to recognize the long-standing innovative fixing and making traditions already established in Ghana. For them, the idea that a Maker movement is coming from outside of Ghana, and is aiming to transform its landscape, is highly problematic. “The problem is it continues to reinforce the mentality...that all of the amazing things need to be brought in [from outside of Africa]. There is already [a] makerspace in Ghana [...] let’s see them as makerspaces and bring them into the discourse and not just focus on the negative side but try to use the positive side to change the negative side” (Interview with DK Osseo-Asare).

In QAMP’s current work, they have demonstrated the social and cultural aspects of Agbogbloshie, and are invested in helping local scrapers realize desires to create more business and stability, often through local processing and fabrication techniques. While still in its inception stage, they have started using scrap and waste material from Agbogbloshie itself to create makerspace hubs for on-site educational and fabrication practices. Considering long-standing fabrication groups such as a blacksmith and pot-fabrication collective within Agbogbloshie, QAMP has a striking opportunity to further facilitate the creation of more locally-formed, locally-contingent and locally-led maker groups. Toward this end, they are interested in fostering the scrapers’ specific, “situated knowledges” of materials on-hand." ([6])