What happens when you put the drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali with those from Ghana and Kenya, and add resources to the mix? That's exactly the question that organizers of the first Maker Faire Africa intend to answer starting tomorrow, when inventors, venture capitalists, journalists, and curious members of the general public gather in Accra, Ghana, for a 3-day celebration of do-it-yourself innovation. The aim of the event, an offshoot of similar gatherings in the United States held over the past few years, is to identify, spur, and support local development by bringing Africa's brightest inventors and idea men and women together in a single forum.
A Maker What?
The original Maker Faire was held in April 2006 in San Mateo, California. Sponsored by MAKE Magazine and billed as the world's biggest celebration of science, engineering, and crafting, the event drew roughly 20,000 visitors. Maker Faire's popularity has grown in the years since, with MAKE sponsoring events in Austin, Texas, and Newcastle, United Kingdom, in addition to subsequent gatherings in San Mateo. "It's pinnacle geek culture that you can't find anywhere else in the world," one product designer told Wired last year. MAKE is busy preparing to host Maker Faire Rhode Island in September. One of the most popular exhibits to appear at several Maker Faires since the event's inception is the life-size, Rube Goldberg-esque mousetrap inspired by the classic board game of the same name. Another geeky favorite is the Diet Coke and Mentos-fueled Bellagio-style fountain.
While MAKE isn't an official sponsor of Maker Faire Africa, the editors of the magazine allowed the Maker Faire Africa organizers to use the MF name and they'll be covering the event. Maker Faire Africa was the idea of entrepreneur and TED Africa Director Emeka Okafor, who authors a blog, Timbuktu Chronicles, about innovation in Africa. "The aim is to identify, spur and support local innovation," Okafor originally wrote on Ned.com, where he launched his idea for Maker Faire Africa in 2008. "At the same time, Maker Faire Africa would seek to imbue creative types in science and technology with an appreciation of fabrication and by default manufacturing. The long-term interest here is to cultivate an endogenous manufacturing base that supplies innovative products in response to market needs."
Why Ghana? Why Now?
Okafor and his fellow organizers, including AfriGadget.com founder Erik Hershman and Nii Simmonds of the blog, Nubian Cheetah, scheduled the first Maker Faire Africa to follow the International Development Design Summit, which was held in Kumasi, Ghana. Finished prototypes from the summit, which was organized by MIT and ran through Wednesday, will be presented at MFA. Okafor hopes this week's Maker Faire is the first of many in Africa.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
One of the featured presenters scheduled to speak at Maker Faire Africa is William Kamkwamba, a Malawian who, against all odds, built an electricity-generating windmill as a teenager out of primarily scrap materials. Kamkwamba was forced to drop out of school at the age of 14 because his family couldn't afford the nominal annual tuition. After reading a library book about wind energy, he constructed a windmill out of a broken bicycle, a tractor fan blade, and blue-gum trees, among other things. His prototype windmill powered four light bulbs, two radios, and mobile phones, and Kamkwamba soon built two more windmills to provide his family with electricity, a luxury only 2 percent of Malawians could afford. After news of his ingenuity spread, Kamkwamba was invited to speak at the TEDGlobal 2007 conference, where a group of investors agreed to finance his education. Kamkwamba has since authored a book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which will be released in September, and is the subject of a documentary.
Among the other inventors who will attend Maker Faire Africa are Dominic Wanjihia, who invented a device called the Evapocooler to cool camels' milk for transportation in Somalia, and a pair of Kenyan students who designed a pocket-sized and pedal-powered cell phone charger that can be attached to the back wheel of a bike. Hershman, who regularly profiles similar inventions on AfriGadget.com, is attending Maker Faire Africa with the goal of getting feedback on a collaborative design effort with the Portable Light project and messenger bag-maker Timbuk2. Hershman has brought several prototypes of the FLAP (Flexible Light And Power) bag "“ a messenger bag outfitted with a solar panel connected to an LED light "“ to Ghana to determine how useful the device would be to people in Africa. You can read more about the FLAP project here.