SXSW2012: Street-Level Genius: An African Maker Safari

From bicycle-powered mobile phone chargers to a helicopter built from an old Honda Civic and the remains of a crashed 747, Africa has been producing a unique strain of innovators long before the maker movement started trending in the US. With projects ranging from the practical (DIY biofuel systems), to the whimsical (home-made robots), street-level makers in the most resource-poor communities show time and again that the only essential materials for innovation are ingenuity and ambition. This example-filled panel discussion will be fun, eye-opening and inspirational. Come and see what lessons constraint-based innovation holds for us all.

Anita Pyke, John Kidenda, Juliana Rotich, Steve Daniels

Making and innovating in low-income / low-resource communities.

  • Informal Economy
  • Industrial Slums
  • Afrigadget Blog
  • People are teaching themselves
  • Makeshift Magazine

Geoffrey Kago, Kenya

  • Chicken egg incubator for small scale farmer in Kenya
  • Learned how to woodwork in a coffin making shop
  • Started with $6 of starting capital selling cigarettes
  • Within 2 years had $100K business
  • Adapted for bio-fuel, solar

Pascal Katena

  • Started innovators club
  • Created an electronic fish trap from electronic scrap
  • Scrap computer and cell phone parts
  • Sends a signal to fisherman once a certain amount of fish are around the trap
  • Also made a way to charge your cell phone with your bicycle
  • Locally available scrap material

Kiira Electric Car

  • Car constructed on the ground using locally available materials
  • 80KM on a single charge
  • Local artisans contribute to the supply chain

Access Wind, Kenya

  • Wind Turbine
  • Locally manufactured with locally available materials
  • Go to a local mechanic or metal worker and collaborating on a design

Maker Safari

  • Tanzania - Make-do - use current materials and what is valuable to make something fun, found on Facebook
  • Fab Lab in Nairobi, digital fabrication, 3D printing
  • Bicycle Knife Sharpener - income generator, will ride from village to village sharpening knives
  • Maker culture can be fun but also profitable
  • Lilongwe, Malawi - had to drop out of school, reverse engineered a windmill to generate energy from scrap, everything makeshift, dynamo motor, villagers thought he was a witch
  • If you want to get the maker movement going you have to target the youth
  • Modular workbench - started with a basic frame and then built modules on top of it
  • Light bulb - waterbottle, sealed with water and bleach, refraction allows equivalent amount of light to 50W of bulbs, hole in the ceiling. Started in the Phillippines and now spreading throughout the world. Deeply relevant but simple
  • Three wheel taxi - Thai Flood Hacks
  • Boat made out of plastic bowls
  • Shopping cart bridge


  • White space, no regulations
  • Reuse - constraints around resources
  • Availability of something that can be up cycled
  • We are all optimizers - the informal economy is sometimes the optimal place to be. Restrictions in the formal economy.
  • People adapt to the problem at hand
  • Innovation gap where there are high barriers to risk of innovating
  • Informal economy is 75% of jobs, 90% of jobs are created in the informal economy
  • Africa Maker Fair - a gathering of makers, show and tell, a celebration of ingenuity (Maker Fair Africa)
  • In the formal economy we copy within the law. The key to being successful is to stay ahead of the curve constantly. People only copy what works.
  • Copying is a form of mass adoption
  • William Kamkwamba
  • Make Do - Steve Daniels

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  • G. Brad Hopkins
  • About Me: I bought my first computer - an Apple Performa 6320 - when I was in college and have been building websites ever since. These days I spend most of my time writing code and helping to bring interesting projects to life.
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