Together with participants of a digital roundtable, Research Group 2, “Critical Maker Culture”, discussed responses of the open science movement and the do-it-yourself culture in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic on the African continent. A discussion with Research Group Lead Michelle Christensen and Research Fellow Gameli Adzaho about this digital exchange of experiences in cooperation with Africa Open Science & Hardware and the Einstein Center Digital Future.
When did your research group come up with the idea to organise the “African Makers Against COVID-19” digital roundtable and what were the main insights you wanted to gain with it?
Michelle Christensen: Quickly after the crisis broke out, we saw a multitude of responses to COVID-19 happening in open technology and maker culture globally, including in Berlin. We had Gameli Adzaho with us, who is part of Africa Open Science & Hardware, a platform for enabling sustainable development on the African continent through grassroots research and innovation, and he also observed this immense DIY response taking place in African maker communities. Since one of our research focuses is on maker culture in the global south, we were interested in bringing together representatives from different communities and labs to discuss the responses to the crisis, the challenges that makers are facing and the opportunities that they observe. Representatives from GIZ Togo and Ghana joined in too, because they were also very much interested in projects on personal protective equipment that they saw emerging from the maker communities.
Mr. Adzaho, you are engaged in Labs in Ghana and also in transnational networks of maker spaces. How can West African maker spaces be described?
Gameli Adzaho: Traditionally, making is very much a response to day-to-day challenges. For example, informal repair services are widely used. Also, the interest in technology to build up businesses is very high, especially among young people. Increasingly, people are using technology not only in a business-oriented way, but to solve day-to-day problems like access to energy or environmental issues. To address these challenges effectively, it becomes more important not just to practise as individuals, but collectively, and this is the idea of all kinds of groups, networks and labs. We have a great variety of collectives: from innovation spaces for the development of prototypes, maker spaces, where people work on hardware and do-it-yourself-projects, education spaces that offer workshops and trainings, to networks like my Global Lab Network, where we are interested in applying science and technology for sustainable development.
How did you choose the participants for the roundtable event?
Michelle Christensen: The first roundtable focused mainly on responses in West Africa, which has a very vibrant maker scene. We had visited Ghana and Togo last year and met a lot of initiatives – so, together with Africa OSH, we engaged this network to help us to locate heterogeneous projects responding to the pandemic. Through this collaboration, we managed to bring together speakers from maker communities in Ghana, Togo, Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria, as well as more than 40 participants from various other countries, on very short notice.
What lessons could be learned during the event about the responses of grassroots makers to COVID-19?
Gameli Adzaho: I think the immediate COVID-19 challenge is on three main dimensions. How can we prevent the disease from reaching many people? How will we be able to test for the virus? And how can we treat those affected?
Like everywhere else in the world, there was a lack of access to personal protection equipment, a lack of access to laboratory tests and strained medical services, with a lack of ventilators. To meet these challenges, the African makers used what was at their disposal – household tools, sewing machines, 3D printers, etc., to make face masks and shields, touchless handwashing stations, ventilators, and also mask straps to make the wearing of masks more comfortable. Others like do-it-yourself thermometers and rapid diagnostic kits are in the pipeline. The creativity and adaptability exhibited are worth noting.
What did you learn about the processes and collaborations underlying making in response to COVID-19?
Michelle Christensen: These bottom-up labs and networks often act as hubs for bringing different perspectives into conversation: communities in the neighbourhoods in which they are embedded, youth who are interested in technology and want to build an idea, the global open tech community who share code, knowledge and perspectives, as well as often entering into an exchange with academic institutions and research institutes. But what we’ve furthermore seen in the context of COVID-19 is also a strong link happening to political institutions, as governments quickly observed the potential that these spaces and their projects could have in regard to acting within the crisis.
Gameli Adzaho: It is touching to see the increasing attention on the maker and open science movement in Africa. We have never seen this focus before. Health ministries are interested in collaboration and there is also a lot of media attention and appreciation in the communities. People saw that makers were creating practical and very useful things and they began to see the benefits beyond the products: for example, that these spaces offer an opportunity for young people to build their skills or even earn extra income.
What where the main challenges that the projects reported?
Gameli Adzaho: Funding is of course always a big challenge, as was accessing parts and supplies, because of interrupted supply chains. Some participants reported that they had to rely on universities or other institutions for tools and materials. Others reported problems with scaling up their production to meet the high demand. With masks and shields, it was mostly possible to scale quickly, but for more complex products like touchless handwashing stations or ventilators, the demands of communities and health facilities were much higher than the produced outcomes. The absence of official validation procedures for products was also a problem, especially for the implementation of ventilators.
Do you see possibilities to strengthen maker communities in West Africa and other low- and middle-income countries in their fight against COVID-19?
Michelle Christensen: Based on the discussions that unfolded during the round table, we could see the importance of even further strengthening the dialogue between spaces of open science and making. Sharing experiences and challenges concerning everything from production and prototyping, organisation and funding, distribution and validation, and not least about the attitude and positioning of the maker community itself is of great importance. And furthermore, these actors need to be at the table when it comes to developing further policy and funding programs in this area. There is so much capacity already out there – spaces, equipment, skills and people who want to act locally whilst embedded in a global open knowledge network – in a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, such a bottom-up approach would really be to the benefit of all parties.
Thank you very much for the interview.
The speakers at this event included: Joshua Opoku Agyemang Otoo (IoT Network Hub, Ghana), Dr. Khadidiatou Sall (SN3D-COVID19, Senegal), Ousia Foli-Bebe (Eco-Tec Lab, Togo), Obasegun Ayodele (Vilsquare Makers’ Hub, Nigeria), Nadine Mowoh (Mboalab, Cameroon) and Evans Djangbah (Kumasi Hive, Ghana).
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