Next Generation of Innovation for the Grassroots

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Taking inspiration from science fiction sagas like the TV show Star Trek, the next generation of innovation is already taking shape in the South. A group of innovative facilities called Fab Labs (short for Fabrication Laboratory) in Ghana, India, Kenya, South Africa and Costa Rica are applying cutting-edge technology to address the everyday needs of people.

Like the futuristic “replicator” in Star Trek, Fab Labs allow people to design and produce what they need there and then. The labs are mushrooming throughout the South as people get the innovation bug.

Originally an idea from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms, which sponsors nine of the labs, Fab Labs let people use digital technology to build physical objects, from eyeglass frames to toys and computer parts. Fab Labs empower local invention by turning education, problem-solving and job creation into a creative process.

Started by Professor Neil Gershenfeld, Fab Labs use US $20,000 worth of computers, open source design software, laser cutters, milling machines and soldering irons, letting people harness their creativity to build things they need, including tools, replacement parts and essential products unavailable in the local market.

With minimal training, children and adults are designing and making their own toys, jewellery and even computer circuit boards with the machines. It turns people from consumers into inventors.

“Instead of bringing information technology to the masses, the Fab Labs bring information technology development to the masses,” said Gershenfeld.

In Ghana, the Takoradi Technical Institute in the southwest of the country hosts a Fab Lab, allowing a wide variety of people to use the “replicator” – from local street children to tribal chiefs – to make a wide range of products. The Ghana lab has several projects on the go, including antennae and radios for wireless internet networks and solar-powered machinery for cooking, cooling and cutting. The labs have found that the younger the users, the faster the skills are picked up.

John Silvester Boafo, principal at the Takoradi Technical Institute, is proud of what he calls a fu-fu pounder. “In a Ghanaian home, the main dish is fu-fu,” he told the BBC. “Fu-fu is made of plaintain and cassava, which are cooked. After they are cooked, they are put into a mortar and pounded by hand. People go through hard labour just to get a meal to eat. So, we thought we could fabricate this machine to alleviate the hard labour they use in pounding.”

They are also working on portable hand-held chargeable solar panels for televisions and refrigerators.

In Pabal, in the western part of Maharashtra, India, a Fab Lab was established at the Vigyan Ashram in 2002 and is now working on developing agricultural instruments. They are also testing milk for quality and safety, and tuning diesel engines to run more efficiently, especially with bio fuels. Another lab in Bithoor in the state of Uttar Pradesh (operated with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur) is working on 3-D scanning and printing for rural artisans, such as producing wooden blocks used in Chikan embroidery.

In South Africa, officials are in the process of setting up four labs. The first is in the capital Pretoria, home to Africa’s first “science park”. The second is in the township of Shoshanguve, a very poor community with high unemployment.

“We have these very high-tech small start-up companies that are excited by the proximity of the lab,” said Sushil Borde, head of the government agency charged with rolling out the four labs. “The companies say, ‘We have these brilliant ideas, we have these business models, but we don’t know how to get these ideas into tangible products.”

Borde hopes the network of Fab Labs will enable South African entrepreneurs and engineers to test their ideas and “fast track the process of growth and development.”

Seventeen-year-old Kenneth Chauke has been able to build a robot in the Fab Lab in Pretoria, he told the Christian Science Monitor.

IT supervisor Nthabiseng Nkadimeng at the Fab Lab in Shoshanguve, has been encouraging South African youth to dream expansively about new technology. “We want to encourage innovation,” she told the Christian Science Monitor. “A lot of the kids, right now, they’re making toys. That’s okay, it’s a start. But eventually we want them to do things that haven’t been done before.”

“It’s the idea that if you’re somewhere in rural South Africa, and you want something for solar energy, you can go to a Fab Lab and make your own,” said Naas Zaayman, who works for the government on coordinating the Fab Lab strategy.

Resources:

  • id21 Insights: A series of articles by the UK ’s Institute of Development Studies on how to make technology and science relevant to the needs of the poor:

  • Biography: Professor Neil Gershenfeld

  • eMachineShop: This remarkable service allows budding inventors to download free design software, design their invention, and then have it made in any quantity they wish and shipped to them: Amazing!

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