The last years are witnessing the rise of a new phenomenon generally defined as Makers movement. Its pillar is the network grown around Make Magazine and Maker Faire. Make Magazine is a publication born in 2006 that connects a wide range of DIY projects related with technology. Makers Faire is a meeting held around the USA aiming at the connection of backyard inventors, artists and high-tech crafters. Behind this boom is O’Reilley Media, the publisher worldwide known for its software manuals and for the support to many initiatives related to technological innovation, social entrepreneurship and high-tech startups.
The Maker Faire is only the top of an iceberg of worldwide upturn in new forms of Do It Yourself, that includes communities and laboratories interested in hardware hacking (like Dorkbot), desktop manufacturing (MIT’s Centre for Bits and Bytes, the FabLab movement), DIYbio, and many others “backyard” approaches to material production. Similar phenomena have always existed in the world of geeks, but there is something radically new in what it’s happening now.
We can identify at least four main causes of this rapid social transformation. Firstly, there is an increasing number of people with high-level education in sciences and technologies. Secondly, this people is now connected through incredibly powerful means thanks to the rise of web 2.0 (and platforms, like Instructables, that allow to create and share extremely complex sets of informations in an easy way). Thirdly, desktop manufacturing technologies (like the open source 3D printing projects RepRap and the MakerBot) and services (like the on-demand lasercutting portal Ponoko) are becoming extremely accessible and cheap. Finally, there is an increasing interest in open hardware projects (think at Arduino: it’s cheap, extremely flexible, customizable and even kids can learn to use it). According to many observers, this situation is going to reshape the way we think at the relationships among material production, technology, innovation and society.
This panorama is extremely exciting, but it’s entirely based on north-american and european perspectives. What the makers are, what they do and what are their motivations is mainly defined within the boundaries of needs, wishes and imageries of rich countries.
In 2009 a group of social entrepreneurs and designers has started to re-think grassroots invention concept in an African frame, putting together makers from various countries and asking: “What happens when you put the drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali with those from Ghana and Kenya, and add resources to the mix?” (from their website). The answer to this question is Maker Faire Africa, an international organization founded by Mark Grimes (Ned.com) along with Emeka Okafor (TED Africa), Emer Beamer (Butterfly Works and Nairobits), Erik Hersman (Afrigadget) and Henry Barnor (Ghana Think). The physical meeting Maker Faire Africa has been held in Ghana in 2009 and in Kenya in 2010.
Maker Faire Africa aims at documenting, connecting and organizing african DIY initiatives, with a specific focus on the possibility to launch in the markets some of the inventions. The project is of an extreme interest because it looks at bottom-up innovation where people decide what are their needs and what are the best ways to satisfy them. In african countries there is a strong need for this crucial switch in the approach to technology and society because it can potentially drive to a re-shaping of power balances with the rest of the world.
Waiting to hear news of makers networks in Asia and South-America, we have decided to interview Marc Grimes, one of the founders of Makers Faire Africa. He came to Italy for a talk at the Festivaletteratura in Mantua, invited by the non-profit Fondazione Lettera 27.
Marco Mancuso and Bertram Niessen: The first thing that would be interesting to explore is the relationship that exists among Maker Faire in the U.S.A., Maker Faire Africa, Ned.com, NedSpace and Afrigadget. What is this network, and how does it work?
Mark Grimes: I was familiar with Evan Williams, the gentleman who started Twitter. I saw him launching Twitter, so I went in it. I did the traditional frenzy things that a lot of people did in the early days. I adopted it and it was like “Uhm…I don’t get it”. A few months later, a lot of people that I had great respect for were starting to use Twitter and I told myself: “Ok, I must have overlooked something”. So I went back, and I said: “Well, let’s have a second look”.
Using a new search feature in Twitter I put myself in something I was particular very interested in: “microfinance”. I started to follow people who was talking about microfinance, development and emerging markets. Then I started also to ask questions via Twitter about Africa and Erik Hersman responded to me: I didn’t know who he was, whatever he did, as he didn’t know who I was. From then, we had some dialogue back and forth, privately on Twitter: we used to do a near-network which was the precursor of mine Ned.com (a global online co-working space for early stage social entrepreneurs and collaborative social ventures). We used to have a weekly telephone call: “Here’s what I’m working on this week” or “Here’s what I hope to accomplish by next week”. Here is where the network started, from the early idea of an online network for entrepreneurs.
After a few chats, I said to this Erik: “Do you think we can create a weekly call about small and medium sized organizations, technology, and innovation in Africa and invite others into the conversation?”. He said: “That would be brilliant!”. So we did just that. We started inviting interested people into the online conversation on our platform: out of that, we also invited Emeka Okafor, who’s the gentleman that put together the very first TED Africa conference. He came to this, and, thinking out loud, said: “What would a Maker Faire be like in Africa?”.
From that, another friend and associate who runs the MIT Ideas program said: “That’s a really interesting idea, if you’re going to pursue it, MIT might be able to match some funds. Not a huge amount you know, perhaps seven thousand dollars (USD)”. We thought “Hmmm maybe we should really pursue this. Maybe we should recognize this is a good idea?”. From that an incredible organization Butterfly Works and one of their co-founders Emer Beamer from Amsterdam came on board; it was the first commitments of a small handful of sponsors to support the team as a sponsor.
From there, we put together the team: Emer Beamer came on work. Henry Barnor, from California, came on as well. Henry’s a technical/technology guy; he’s someone that has the deepest understanding of software. Emer is more, in a way, the operations person. I’m more of the marketing, sales, and business-model side of things. And Erik Hersman is the grassroots guys. Erik understands the Afrigadget side of things. He’s been doing this for some other kind of folks. He knows how to find them, how to discover cover them. He knows the good from the copycats, he understands that all.
From there, we decided to move ahead with our first event, and every team member – including myself! – had someone to contact, including some family member in Accra, Ghana. We knew Ghana was the oldest democracy in Africa; it would be a great first place to start. It was January/February of 2009: we had a commitment on the location, the Kofi Annan Center, and we had some makers that were bringing things from outside. Then we started to find local makers: Henry and Erik getting on motorbikes and riding out in the rural areas of Ghana were looking for inventors, showing people the stuff we were doing, just finding out some cool stuff. We also had some TV and some radio interviews. At the end, we had 59 makers, and over a thousand people attended. We immediately decided “Ok, let’s do this again”.
Marco Mancuso and Bertram Niessen: What about the makers profiles? Are they engineers? Are they amateurs, or professional amateurs?
Mark Grimes: In many cases they’re individuals, in some cases they’re teams of people. The majority of them probably don’t have any formal education in the area. Some of them you might consider engineers, others you might consider artists. I think they would consider themselves professional amateurs. If you go to a land in rural parts of Kenya and you ask them: “What would you do to describe yourself ?”, they will reply “I’m a farmer, and a farmer develops this machines”. You know, my grandfather was a carpenter. During the Great Depression in the US he made this unbelievable tools for mahogany wood industry and he traded them for food. The things he created were amazing stuff. But he perceived himself as a farmer.
Marco Mancuso and Bertram Niessen: How the Match a Maker section on the website could help the makers to fit with the inputs coming from market and investors?
Mark Grimes: We wanted to do this “Match a Maker” web site where people could actually put online their e-mail, their phone number, their picture and a description of what he made and what he does. To a certain degree, the second year of Maker Faire Africa was a success because now we have this thing we’ve created, we’ve a story of an outcome we can point to and say: “Here’s what we did”. We want to help makers, innovators and inventors get their product and idea to the next level, whatever that “next level” might mean. Something that may be good for building income for that one maker, or something that might scale to hire and impact dozens of people in that makers community. We want to provide a platform and provide guidance and collaboration, we are not trying to be prescriptive. Personally, I’ve very interested in the underlying elements of the Millennium Development Goals and am looking for innovations and inventions that could scale to provide social benefit to over one million people in multiple countries in five years or under. Hard to find? Of course.
Marco Mancuso and Bertram Niessen: The cultural fields around the Makers Movement are extremely diverse. In Europe, for example, they are more linked to art, technology and hacktivism. In the US there is a heterogeneous composition too: some values from the world of crafts, some others from the social entrepreneur’s culture. How does it work in Africa? Are there other kinds of institutional cultures involved, such as the NGOs ones?
Mark Grimes: Our theory is to work in an open source environment, inviting everybody that wants to come and help the makers. If an NGO comes, it’s fantastic. “Come on, let’s do this!”. They can do incredible stuff. The most important thing is what the experience means for the makers: bringing more makers, divergent makers, more makers from outside the country as well, and make sure they have the best experience possible with the all Maker Faire. A good example is General Electric, GE came in as a sponsor, but more importantly they came with a creative approach, as they created a non-cash prize: they wanted to pick up a maker and took him to India to work for three days with a GE’s CTO head of technology. The fact is that anybody which is involved in this kind of things, would kill to do that. It’s something invaluable; that’s an amazing experience. Another great example: ASME/Engineering for Change brought one of its board members to Nairobi and they meet with many of the technical and engineering participants at Maker Faire Africa. Also we talked with Capasso Group, a group of engineers/designers from Italy, and that’s going to be a good experience too. NGOs and makers have to do things together. Obviously we got some great good partners in NPOs/NGOs.
Marco Mancuso and Bertram Niessen: When you say open source, do you talk about it in a formalized way? Is there an attempt to build something like a common pool ?
Mark Grimes: There’s been no drive for that formally yet, but a couple of people I’ve talked to want to develop their business level to the next level. They want to upgrade it to make success, and this mixes up with the open source principles.
Marco Mancuso e Bertram Niessen: We would need some examples of the objects you’re talking about. And we would also like to have also some examples of involvement in the market for the makers.
Mark Grimes: One of the models I’m working on now is an object I brought in my bag. The story starts in Accra where I meet Dominic Wanjihia an inventor we brought from Nairobi to the first Maker Faire Africa. We were sitting at dinner with 20 or more other people at an outdoor restaurant and Dominic asked it I wanted to see an invention of his that helped stop the spread of Malaria in the slums of Kibera. The item is a tool that looks much like the lid of a can and it can be affixed on the base of a light bulb and filled up with some local herbs that repel malaria mosquitoes. When the bulb lights up, the herbs fill up the air with this repellent smoke, and mosquitoes fly away. An interesting point is that in Kibera they have power only for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, high risk times for Malaria infection and a time people are not protected by bed nets. So, the herbs are lightened up only for four hours a day. Given the right planning and nurturing this model can be built to build in a revenue stream! Another model I’m working on is something I’m calling “micro-venture finance”: a new connection between venture finance and microfinance, with investment and seed capital for innovative and disruptive ideas and funding in the 5,000 to 15,000 USD range in emerging markets and developing countries.
Marco Mancuso e Bertram Niessen: From another point of view, these inventions could be considered also as pure design or artworks. Do you have other examples in this direction?
Mark Grimes: Yes, of course. I can tell you the story of this guy that realizes couches, tables and chairs with recycled plastic bottles. Solid and confortables. The hard challenge is to ship them to the US, for example. Our team tried to accord money transport: it costs 200 dollars to ship it while the price of the product is 200 dollars as well. And it never arrived…. All these things are like millions of challenges to be faced in a separate manner.
Marco Mancuso e Bertram Niessen: Do you think that what you’re doing with Maker Faire Africa can also be reproduced in other countries? One of the things to reflect on, at this point, is how much this kind of system can be reproduced in different areas of the world also according to the social and technical conditions…
Mark Grimes: Myself and one of the other Maker Faire Africa co-founders are also focused on developing countries and emerging markets outside Africa. I’m trying to figure out how we can cross the nations. So, the answer is yes, there are things that can be taken outside the borders of countries: As an example, Kiva a business whose mission is to connect people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty by combining microfinance with the internet, creating a global community of people connected through crowd sourced lending). Another example is Grameen Bank a social enterprise focused exclusively in Bangladesh that, over 35 years, has facilitated and supported a network of over 14,000 rural enterprises creating significant cost and time savings for villagers. Yet another example is Drishtee focused on the rural poor in India which in just a few short years has provided an effective channel for enterprises to sell products and services to over 3,500 rural kiosks where they make products available in rural areas, also providing digital training and computer access.
Marco Mancuso e Bertram Niessen: During our first meeting we had an interesting conversation about the mobile phone potentialities. I felt you pretty sure about the phone potentialities in terms of development and you told me a story that I didn’t know about the growing percentage of people in Africa that have a mobile phone. Probably here in Western countries we don’t think it could be possible. Why are you so sure about the fact that this could be the way to go beyond digital divide?
Mark Grimes: One thing that really surprised me about Africa is that everybody has a mobile phone. In the last 10 years mobile phone use in the continent of Africa has grown from 5% to 55%. In many places in Africa there are people who have mobile devices but homes that have no electricity, so how do they power them? Many people in Africa pay .25 to .50 cents to a retailer to plug in and power their phone up. It’s amazing! The interesting point is to realize the emergence of such need, and then to try to find a way to solve the problem. For example, using the kinetic power of the bike to charge it. When you look at something like Ushahidi (a collaborative web platforms that allows to share mapping and SMS text information on crisis areas, firstly developed by Kenyans during the 2008 crisis) you can see what is the importance of connectivity in these areas. Ushahidi created an open source software platform and combined Google maps with text based reporting of problems in Kenya. Mobile and smart phone devices are going change the future of computing; they are also going to have a tremendous impact social change and making the world a better place.