Fabrication and manufacturing: The future of African hardware innovation

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Across Africa there is a vibrant culture of people creating things. Hardware products. It’s rarely glamorous as our inventors and micro-entrepreneurs innovate on products due to necessity — there simply aren’t enough jobs and they need to feed their families.

Regardless of the reasons why they do it, what this has created is a culture of innovation.

When you have a problem in Africa, there isn’t another option, you either improvise, adapt and overcome, or you die. You don’t give up, you figure out a way to make things work.

This environment has bred a generation of problem solvers: people confront immense challenges and keep at it until a solution is found. It might not always be the most beautiful solution (usually the finishing isn’t up to par), but it works and that’s what matters.

Concurrently, we’re a net importer of fabricated products from around the world. We might make some of our own software now, but we do little to nothing with hardware. How can we be the masters of our own future if we don’t do any meaningful levels of fabrication?

A while back I wrote about the need of “hardware hacking garages” in Africa, a place where the innovation and inventions that deal with things you can actually put your hands on happens. I think this is our next frontier to explore: fabrication and manufacturing.

Moving from FabLab to Fab Factory

The one place that we do some type of fabrication, at least where we explore and invent, is the network of FabLabs across the continent. They are very much university focused (and constrained), but they have had a great amount of innovation coming out of them as well. In Kenya, Kamau Gachigi runs the one in Nairobi, and it has been a model of both invention and innovative revenue streams to keep itself going and to bring in funds to the engineers working through it.

The FabLab is small though. What would happen if you put it on steroids and made it 10 times larger? What if we were talking about a Fab Factory instead?

A factory
A space that has all the machines needed to fabricate prototypes and manufacture pieces in at least small quantities. It would need machine tools, laser cutters, 3D printers, wood working tools and more. A place that you could rent time on the machines, rent a workshop, and get training on the machines you don’t know how to operate. Something that looks a lot like the TechShop in San Francisco, but tweaked to work in Africa.

A warehouse
Take the factory model, and layer on a warehouse. There are some items that we will not make on our own, namely computer chips. Having a warehouse would allow group buying to happen, where economies of scale could be reached for supplies to be brought into the country, as well as serving as a central facility for distribution of these items to the community.

A nodal network
Having a central “factory” and “warehouse” provides many benefits, but it’s not enough. As we know from 3 years of running Maker Faire Africa events, many of the most interesting inventions come from rural areas, mainly due to the fact that they have strong commercial upside. In this case it makes sense to take the original FabLab model and export that to the major cities around the country, making these types of capabilities much more accessible to a wider user base.

A tech store
Beyond building and inventing, there’s a gap where the people creating things can take them to market. Providing a space for these people to sell their products (and services), provides a bigger target for buyers, both consumer and B2B buyers to find new items. It also provides a much-needed stream of income for the small-scale inventors, with the potential to put them on the map for efforts to commercialize and scale their work.

Emeka Okafor, my organising colleague for Maker Faire Africa, has been on this fabrication thing for years. He has even more examples of small-scale manufacturing on his blog at Timbuktu Chronicles.

I imagine a place like that would get immediate use in certain markets; namely Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, though others might line up quickly as well. It certainly makes sense for the governments in these countries to invest in this future, or at the very least to incentivize this type of ownership of our own technological future.

What I’m wondering is what other models are there like this?

If building the iHub, m:lab and Ushahidi have taught me anything, it’s that getting something going is the most important thing you can do. Do something, even if small. Get traction. Get started.

The answer isn’t to wait on the government, even though we all see the argument for them being involved here. I imagine the next step is to raise some money, find a space and get a few fabrication machines in place. It will grow from there. Standby for this in Nairobi soon. It has to happen, and it will happen.

This will take money. Anyone interested in getting involved?

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