Maker Faire Africa showcases ingenuity

August 17, 2009 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

George Odhiambo's bicycle-turned-bellows

Bicycle-turned-bellows for metal fabrication

Maker Faire Africa in Ghana just concluded, and the pictures are fabulous. Dive into the Flickr pool.

Even better, follow AfriGadget’s coverage for highlights. Local materials and resalvaged parts, plus ingenuity applied to everyday problems, yield great engineering.

  • A team from Accra Polytechnic set up a home-brew radio station, complete with antenna, which broadcast for the duration of the festival.
  • A rural Ghanaian inventor shared three devices from his smithy: a corn planter, a shea nut roaster, and a soap cutter.
  • Bicycle parts and pedal power are key to many inventions, including Tanzanian Bernard Kiwia’s hacksaw, windmill, cell phone charger, drill press and water pump.

And speaking of bicycles and windmills, young design rockstar William Kamkwamba received a warm reception. William’s now a TED Fellow whose story is captured by book and film, but here’s how he got started:

Due to severe famine in 2001, his family lacked the funds to pay the $80 in annual school fees and William was forced to drop out of school a few months into his freshman year. For five years he was unable to go to school.

Starting at 14, rather than accept his fate, William started borrowing books from a small community lending library located at his former primary school. He borrowed an 8th grade American textbook called Using Energy, which depicted wind turbines on its cover. He decided to build a windmill to power his family’s home and obviate the need for kerosene, which provided only smoky, flickering, distant and expensive light after dark. First he built a prototype using a radio motor, then his initial 5-meter windmill out of a broken bicycle, tractor fan blade, old shock absorber, and blue gum trees. After hooking the windmill to a car battery for storage, William was able to power four light bulbs and charge neighbors’ mobile phones. This system was even equipped with homemade light switches and a circuit breaker made from nails, wire, and magnets. The windmill was later extended to 12 meters to better catch the wind above the trees. A third windmill pumped grey water for irrigation. Around that time, he also built a radio transmitter using broken radio cassette players, hoping to broadcast popular music interspersed with HIV prevention messages.

Subsequent projects have included clean water, malaria prevention, solar power and lighting for the six homes in his family compound; a deep water well with a solar powered pump for clean water, a drip irrigation system, and the outfitting of the village team Wimbe United with their first ever uniforms and shoes.

Leading into Maker Faire was the month-long International Development Design Summit. This MIT-organized collaboration emphasizes the creation of workable prototypes to solve pressing problems such as cassava or groundnut processing, chlorinating water, and plastics reuse. Again, AfriGadget has an overview, and many of the prototypes showed up at Maker Faire.

Rice thresher prototype

Rice thresher

The IDDS process was highly iterative, with repeated visits to the villages to gather requirements and discuss alternatives. Niall Walsh writes of the teams’ final, nervous visits to Ghanaian villages to show off their final prototypes.

Each team set up their prototype and encouraged the villagers to come forward any attempt to use it, and the children present at the meeting certainly didn’t need to be asked twice! A scramble ensued to see who could grab the threshed groundnuts, before the kids made their way over to the Kid Friendly latrine team, to try out their prototype. The adults present were also not slow at providing feedback for the teams, and all seemed genuinely in understanding not only how the project worked, but also how it was made, which was a crucial point.

…“Actually having fifteen or so young men come up to me and ask how they could go about making some Chlorine Production prototypes of their own has had a big impact on how I view the project”.

…Sometimes incredibly simple things can often be overlooked by teams as they get caught up in the intricacies of their design. The Rice Threshing team ran onto this on their visit, with the standout comment being, “how can you make it bigger, and thresh more out of it?”. The rice team had been understandably worried about the size of their rather large machine but when looking at it from a rice farmers perspective, one can easily understand how quantity could be the major issue!


Entry filed under: Engineering. Tags: , , .

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