Saturday, August 28, 2010

Maker Faire Africa; an Exhibition of Brilliant Ideas

I was in Nairobi yesterday to visit Maker Faire Africa, a trade exhibition for people who make things, invent things, develop things and use things to achieve worthwhile ends. The exhibition divided roughly into crafts and technologies. The crafts ranged from highly original to original variations on a theme. And the technologies ranged from pretty low tech, through intermediate and right up to high tech exhibits.

Many of the exhibits were familiar to me in some way, largely through the blog This blog searches for and covers any really good ideas and they are often just the kinds of ideas I've been searching for, in one way or another.

For example, I work in a place where sisal is grown but no high value goods are made from it here and no local people make anything more than a pittance as a result of working with the crop. But I came across a set of jewellery made from sisal, made in Rwanda, something that people here could easily make (I include links where possible but the majority of them didn't work for me). There was also a man who had developed a small machine that one or two people could use to make sisal string and rope. At present, the industry is dominated by a handful of foreign owned factories that date back to the 1950s.

I have also been trying to persuade people that they could use a lot of their organic waste to produce fertilizer or to compress into briquettes that can be used instead of charcoal, wood or other expensive fuels. There was a company exhibiting that makes presses that can be used for producing oil (from seeds), produce low cost and highly resilient bricks and compress fuel briquettes. There was also a group of people producing low cost fertilizer from organic waste. There's a shortage of affordable fertilizer here and far too much dangerous waste, so there's nothing like a product that has a whole range of benefits.

The issue of water hyacinth infestation in Lake Victoria and other inland waterways has long been an environmental challenge. Yet, there was already plenty of technologies and knowledge about how to use the hyacinths as biomass to make into fodder, fuel, fertilizer, furniture, household goods and anything else people can make, depending on their ingenuity. After all, the infestation is relatively new in East Africa but not in Asia. I saw an example of the many possible products, yesterday, made from water hyacinth grown in Nairobi Dam.

Bicycles are a very familiar and useful technology here and there were demonstrations of how to use them to charge mobile phones and other devices. Also, there was a young man demonstrating a bicycle powered maize shucker. People beat maize cobs in sacks at the moment to get the grain off the cob. The bicycle shucker is far quicker and more efficient. This young American man working in Tanzania also had an excellent command of Kiswahili, I was envious. A similar technology can be used to grind the maize, which could save people a lot of money and time as well.

While there was some medium to high technology being exhibited, much of it seemed of little interest to the places where I work, where most people don't have electricity, let alone TV or computers. Even internet cafes are expensive and slow and few people would even know how to use them, or have any inclination to do so. Technophiles forget that basic education is a prerequisite to many things, technology is just one of them.

Anyhow, there was a man from South Africa demonstrating a small (but scalable) telecommunication system which would be ideal for villages, especially where they have also looked into some locally available source of power, such as wind or solar (or a combination). It was unsurprising to find that this man had worked in development for many years and understood some of the hurdles that people face, instead of producing something that has no application in the sorts of places it was intended for.

Spanning design and craft, there were some young women who were making solar powered LED torches, which use local wood and are shaped to have a large surface available for the solar panel. The panels come from Switzerland, which probably explains the high cost of the torches. I also met a man from Malawi who had built a device that cooks ugali (maize porridge, the Kenyan staple, revered but ultimately tasteless, nutrition free and responsible for high rates of diabetes here. He was very enterprising and well informed and it's not his fault that the staple food is not ideal!). He also worked with windmills and other technologies. I'd love to see people building and using windmills in Kenya.

On the craft side of the exhibition there was some amazing ceramic work by a small company called 'Beauty for Ashes Pottery'. Most of the ceramic work I've seen here is just copies of copies churned out for tourists and it's refreshing to see genuine art mixed with this practical and indigenous skill. There was also a young design student who had pushed the boundaries of jewellery and accessory design using recycled materials and I regret not having any contact details for her. But I think the word will get around.

A man who used recycled materials to produce the most bizarre looking novelty glasses got a lot of well deserved attention. An example can be seen on the Maker Faire site at the moment, but you'll have trouble visualizing the length he has gone to in using highly unlikely materials. Other designers used well-known recycled materials to make commonly made products, but some had modified processes in interesting ways. There were the predictable accessories made from the caps of beer bottles but one woman was creating a nice effect by covering each cap with cloth so the bags, wallets, etc, looked a bit like armour plating. Very eye-catching.

On both the design and the technology fronts, there was a very noticeable presence of Kibera, people from Kibera, organizations with Kibera in their name; it's almost a brand. Perhaps in NGO-speak it really is a recognised brand. Journalists seem unable to mention poverty in Nairobi without mentioning Kibera and a handful of factoids about it. But journalists seem unable to mention anything that isn't also mentioned, frequently, by other journalists. And they don't seem able to mention things that haven't been hyped, that's just the way journalism works, it seems. They rub our faces in what we know already, perhaps in the hope that we won't notice that there is anything else.

You'd think there were no other slums in Nairobi, when in fact the majority of Nairobeans live in a slum that is not Kibera. The majority of Kenyans live in a slum that is not in Nairobi. But then, those slums haven't had films, computer games, pop videos and documentaries in them. They are not home to hundreds of NGOs and thousands of development projects. It's hard to believe that there is anyone poor left in Kibera but if there are (and I think there are many), what the hell are all these organizations and their millions of dollars doing?

I didn't get to talk to all the exhibitors, that's just a list of the ones I did get to talk to. Most were very fired up by what they were doing and they all had a spark of originality, also the desire to produce and do things that are needed, rather than copying what millions of others are doing. There was a real spirit of adventure in most of the people I met, I think anyone who meets them and sees what they are doing will want them to succeed, will want to think that they will hear more about these and other great ideas.

I suspect there are many 'makers' of all descriptions around Kenya and other African countries but they can be very hard to find. I've found that myself, other people working in community development have said the same thing. Almost all the people I talked to had some, probably good, access to the internet and other technologies, even where their work is not technological. But some of the people who organized the event have put a lot of effort into finding the best exhibitors and I think the next fair will be even bigger.

I warmly congratulate the people who organized the Maker Faire Africa exhibition and those who exhibited. I was very impressed, both with those who demonstrated things I had heard of but not seen and those who demonstrated things I had not heard of, despite searching high and low for good ideas. I hope people who can benefit from these ideas get to hear about them so that those who develop the ideas can prosper and produce more good ideas. Some people say that development must come from Africans themselves, and I agree. And there is some evidence that this is already happening.



Claire said...

This sounds amazing, so insptring! :-)

Simon said...

It was lovely, and well attended the first day, despite coinciding with the constitution 'promulgation', being a public holiday, and all that.