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Africa re:load 2012 – Highlights & Growing the AfriLabs Network

AfriLabs NetworkI recently returned from Africa re:load 2012, an annual two-day conference hosted by the Bauhaus University Weimar and GIZ (German Agency for International Cooperation) and wanted to share some thoughts while they’re still fresh. This year’s event was centered around the topics of creative industries, maker culture, green construction, renewable energy, design communities and innovative financial solutions. The participants were drawn from organizations based in Ethiopia, Egypt, South Sudan and Germany, among others.

For Ben and myself, being at this event was an opportunity to reconnect with Jörn Schultz, Marton Kocsev and Oliver Petzoldt—the energetic founders of the icehubs network whom we’d met in Addis Ababa last year—and to network with ‘doers’ from a range of disciplines who are actively prototyping the continent’s future.

Highlights

With a solid roundup of sessions planned, choosing which ones to attend proved to be a challenge. I gravitated toward presentations focused on technology, maker culture, innovation hubs and the like. One of the most intriguing projects I saw was Simon Höher’s demo of the knowable.org online DIY community, which just entered its beta phase:

AfriLabs Network

Knowable is a network that provides free and open access to effective, creative, low-tech solutions that help people provide for their basic needs on their own. It combines elements of Afrigadget, the Appropedia wiki, Make magazine, GitHub and the Instructables online communities, remixed in a totally original way with a genuine desire to foster the growth of a grassroots DIY culture. Their platform is engaging, clean and designed from the outset to be accessible in conditions commonly found in Africa. As knowable’s co-founder Simon put it, “we want knowable to work in IE6 in a crowded cyber cafe.” The founders have won numerous pitch competitions, including the Enorm Social Business Angel Competition and are looking to attract investors for their seed round. I hope to connect with Simon again soon and will definitely watch this startup closely.

Growing AfriLabs

On Saturday morning I gave a presentation together with Marton Kocsev on innovation networks that are spreading across the continent. Marton is currently heading up the development of icecairo, the newest node in the growing icehubs network. Building on the success of iceaddis, which I had the pleasure of visiting, I’m sure that the Cairo hub will be poised to make a similar if not greater impact.

Just prior to the conference, the founders of AfriLabs processed the applications for new member hubs and sent out invitations to community managers and representatives across the continent. Here are two slides I pulled from my deck to illustrate the growth of the network. The first visual represents the AfriLabs network at its founding in 2010:

AfriLabs Network

As of today, we have added nine new open coworking spaces, incubators, startup accelerators, pre-incubation labs and social innovation hubs to the network:

AfriLabs Network

The light blue circles represent hubs which are either coming online shortly or have membership applications in process.

A system to connect innovators

AfriLabs NetworkPutting African tech hubs under an umbrella organization like AfriLabs is well and good but, practically speaking, how does this help facilitate collaboration and communication across borders? Following the example of hundreds of existing hackerspaces that span the globe, including a growing number in Africa, I made a modest proposal to link the AfriLabs member hubs with a communications network. The ChaosVPN (wiki and GitHub project) is an open, secure, mesh-based network designed to connect hackers wherever they are. It has no single point of failure, low latency for voice over IP (VoIP) and is designed such that noone sees other people’s traffic.

A solution based on the ChaosVPN model provides the low-level communications infrastructure—or basic plumbing—which permits a range of services to be rolled out across the network. These services could include things like website mirrors, local caches of resources such as MIT OpenCourseware, LDAP, FTP, Jabber, TOR entry/exit nodes, cloud services, distributed computing and so on. As usage increases and more nodes join the AfriLabsVPN, additional sevices pop up and its potential reach is further extended.

This offers loads of possibilities for virtual incubation as well; with greater numbers of virtual memberships being offered through AfriLabs member hubs, online resource offerings can be tailored to these various member levels. What are the implications for computing services? One exciting possibility that springs to mind is eschewing Amazon’s AWS in favor of iHub’s forthcoming supercomputer cluster for “parallel and resource-hungry applications such as weather prediction, draught prediction and real-time information dispatch.”

The software is there; the hardware costs are negligible—all that’s required are a few brave souls to step forward and start hacking the future. Who’s in?



The Extraordinary Makers of Maroua

On the outskirts of Maroua, the capital of the Extreme North of Cameroon, is a place quite unlike any other in the country. Here a community of les forgerons—blacksmiths, or metalworkers—practice their craft in the relative cool of a tree grove. Several dozen men with specialized skills are gathered here for a single purpose: to transform piles of scrap iron into finely finished tools, stoves, replacement parts and other useful implements for sale to the local population. Young apprentices learn the craft while operating bellows or shaping wood for tool handles. The production here is performed entirely by hand and on a scale which must be seen to be fully appreciated.

The finished goods here include agricultural tools; hoes, rakes, pick axes, shovels, wheelbarrows, John Deere-green painted plows, pry bars and machetes; household items such as cook stoves, sieves, pans, watering cans, buckets and cutlery; down to the smallest personal items, like precision tweezers. Motorbike taxis are a ubiquitous mode of transport in the Far North, so many spares are copied (and often improved) from the originals. These include motorcycle seats, cargo carriers and fenders. Many of the pieces of forging equipment—hand-cranked bellows, anvils, hammers and sledges—are themselves fabricated from scrap iron and reused materials.

The imported versions of many of these items are available a kilometer or so away at Fokou, a national chain of hardware stores. The items produced by the forgerons are of very high quality and sold at a fraction of the cost of their imported counterparts. This generates an understandably strong market demand for their wares. Thus, scores of hammers may be heard pounding away on anvils at this place from morning until late afternoon. It’s nothing short of an appropriate-tech, human-powered manufacturing industry.

I spent the better part of an hour slack-jawed at the sight, sound and frenetic pace of activity around the forges. When I inquired how long this community of metalworkers had been working at this spot, a man told me, “depuis l’indépendance” (since independence in 1960). Digging a bit deeper into Maroua’s early history, I uncovered an interesting fact. According to the official story, the name Maroua is derived from the town’s founder, Chef Bi-Marva which means “the Chief of the Forge”. The chief was later deposed by Fulani horsemen in the early 19th century. Had the former chief been a practicing metalsmith? If so, the metalworking heritage of Maroua dates back not 50 years, but closer to 200 years.

Whichever figure is more accurate, the metalworkers of Maroua are extraordinary craftsmen and very Afrigadget!




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