All around the United States, garage inventors called makers congregate for annual Maker Faires--sprawling, family-friendly festivals sponsored by Make Magazine that promote do-it-yourself culture among creative individuals and enterprises. But a group of African bloggers saw an opportunity to give the Maker Faire an entirely new meaning. In 2006, Nigerian blogger Emeka Okafor wrote on the Timbuktu Chronicles, "In pre-industrialized Sub-Saharan Africa [a Make philosophy] stands the chance of becoming a pivotal ingredient needed to ignite mechanoelectrical-chemical creativity." The philosophy behind the maker movement has several core tenets that can be applied anywhere: accessibility of technology, individual control over the finished product, and open sharing of ideas. Applying this philosophy to Africa could redefine what it means to be a jua kali and form a transnational social movement around the informal sector. Three years later, in August 2009, Africa held its first Maker Faire, in Accra, Ghana, drawing craftsmen from around Ghana and flying in others from as far as Liberia, Zambia, Malawi, and Kenya. Bringing the maker movement to Ghana has allowed craftsmen to embrace the notion of solving their own problems through technology. By connecting them with artisans from other countries in Africa, as well as engineers from abroad, their networks have broadened, opening the door for more meaningful opportunities to exchange ideas.
The jua kali provide important lessons for Western economics that compel us to revise our notion of efficiency. Economic and environmental efficiency can be gained from resource constraints, rather than boundless choice, and from linkages among small, independent enterprises, rather than from vertical integration. Indeed, instating these notions of efficiency will be necessary to foster a more sustainable and equitable form of development around the globe.
The promise of the New Industrial Revolution is that by empowering the jua kali to develop new technologies that meet the needs of the various markets--local consumers, formal contractors, and fair trade buyers abroad--Kenya will pave a new, indigenous path of development that the world has never seen. The same can be said of Ghana and Malawi and other nations struggling to reconcile microenterprise with international trade. That is a powerful proposition, and countless examples of ingenuity in the informal sector suggest that it is one worth pursuing.
The genius of the jua kali is their ability to turn trash into treasure: from bike parts to a windmill, oil drums to high art, water weeds to furniture. Material constraints are the reality of life for most in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the jua kali navigate this environment dexterously. With access to capital and protection of ideas, the jua kali will be freer to realize their potential. Imagine the progress that Kenya would make if the entire society were empowered to solve its own problems through indigenous creativity.
But that journey starts with the individual. We have seen the power of one innovator like William Kamkwamba to change a community and one technology like the Kenya Ceramic Jiko to spread to marketplaces all over the country. Each person in the complex web of the informal economy wields a power greater than the self. It is up to us to build upon and bridge those networks to help grassroots innovators everywhere launch the New Industrial Revolution.
Images by Steve Daniels
Editor's Note: This weekend in Nairobi, Kenya, technologists and hackers from around the continent will gather for the second annual Maker Faire Africa. Modeled on the event series launched in the San Francisco Bay area by MAKE Magazine, the Kenyan variation will be drawing on a deep tradition of local African innovation.
Steve Daniels, a remarkable 21-year old designer and IBM researcher, has sought out and documented the local tech scene. He's launching a book at the event called Making Do: Innovation in Kenya's Informal Economy, about the country's artisans, known as jua kali. Here, Daniels provides selections from his book, which is available free as an ebook.