Last month I’ve made a vibrant call to “Close the Incubators and Accelerators, and Open FabLabs and MakerSpaces instead”, simply because Africa needs more people with the skills to fabricate something than additional people with oratory prowess. “More Makers, Not More Pitchers” is the basic message.
I’ve recently met Koffi Sénamé AGBODJINOU, founder of WoeLab, the first MakerSpace in Togo (West Africa). And, starting from today, I will start featuring the few African MakerSpaces which have the power to bring technology to the masses.
In the following Interview, AGBODJINOU shared with us his passion for making things, his dedication to empowering people with technology through open and democratic projects and spaces, and above all his dream to “Make Everybody Equal in Front of New Technologies.”
Where did the MakerSpace idea comes from?
I have always been interested in the know-how and the efficient organizational system of african traditional societies. That’s why I have this double training of anthropologist and architect with an interest in reuse of traditional forms, economical options and self-build.
For a while I ignored the ICT environment because I thought it was remote of these worlds of modesty where I evolved, associating it to individualism, waste and pollution. This mistrust vanished little time ago when I discovered what the philosopher Pekka Himanen name « The Hacker Ethic » : recycling, solidarity, economy of means, autonomy… These values which are characteristic of a certain approach of ICT (particularly hackerspace and FabLab) and which reminded me strangely what I have been used to observe in traditional groups.
So I began first, in a research perspective, wondering how to put in relationship and make collaborate in the transformation of the African cities these two universes who share apparently some common values. I tried to establish a dialog between the hacker of the MIT and the traditional tamberma builder, both of them ‘makers’, according to my intuition.
One thing leading to another, the idea came to create a space to underline this identified proximity. I was so motivated to do it especially because my vision was that these new open-spaces and their technologies was the source of future important upheavals. It is an intuition which has just been validated by President Barack Obama himself because, in the famous Speech on the State of the Union of this week, he clearly suggested that the technologies like 3D printing which develops now in Labs will be the source of the next Industrial Revolution (http://lexpansion.lexpress.fr/high-tech/pour-barack-obama-l-impression-3d-sera-la-prochaine-revolution-industrielle_372624.html – article in French).
In short, in our approach, we can also find the sense of urgency and a responsibility to work so that Africa does not miss this new train on the departure.
How did you get started?
We began modestly, last summer with our own funds and some recycling. We first occupied a classroom of a small primary school; in return of some renovation works, we made. The operation is piloted by the association ‘L’Africaine d’architecture’. Since, the community has been tripled and, after six months of operations, WoeLab is a fast growing adventure with its very young team.
How does the center works?
We can say that until now, we tried to consolidate the capacities of the community, in particular with public sessions of OpenSource machines co-making. For that we did some workshops like the Boot-Woe-Camp last December. About sixty young people came and worked around different projects like the creation of a little digital milling CNC (Numerical control) or the fabrication of an educational robot.
With our new place we will open permanently, respecting liberty, exchange and transparency. Through this three preoccupation I define our position: Democracy of Technology (make everybody equal in front of New Technologies), Coworking (make collaborate people of various horizons, social classes, ages and expertises) and OpenSource (Escape commercial categories).
In due term, WoeLab aspires to be a virtuous system with technologies in free access inside a friendly environment with benevolent ecosystem. In such an environment, passionate people will be ready to share their knowledge and transmit. Also, we’ll find intellectual, human and tool- resources to realize all kind of projects corresponding to our scope statement « LowHighTech ! » (all technological projects may be concerned by the mobilization and the respect of the context).
Your Slogan is “Mila Woe”, what does it means?
« We gonna do it !»
You have 3 main activities: You act as a resource center, an incubator for early stage startups, and also as a networking place bringing together the various players in ICT fields in Togo. Can you share with us how are these activities going?
These three activities are complementary, they enrich each other : Collective Intelligence generated thanks to the status of spaces of Networking feed the startups which are incubated. Those one have a moral contract: donate a part of their benefits to keep alive the place, to maintain it open and free –access to our neighborhood.
You have 2 very interesting 3D printing projects. Tell us more about W.Afate project?
We haven’t yet found the potential of 3D printer in African context. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful tool to educate to the ‘hacker’ mentality and Fablab. According to our experience, it’s the ideal model of co-making project for establishing relationships and learning while making.
First, we have started the assembly of one of these 3D printers (RepRap ‘: Mendel Prusa) with a kit from France. Spontaneously Afate realized the difficulty of getting a kit to make our projects possible. He began to build an empowering 3D printer made only with recycling, e-waste. The W.Afate is the first african 3D printer and the biggest pride of the Lab. The project is well advanced and we are beginning the phase of its documentation.
Where do you see the center in 5 years?
For me, it’s difficult to project myself so far. I can only say where we might be the next month.
This March, we begin the campaign ‘MI LA WOE’ (“We gonna do it”). It’s the second big time of our adventure. After a first time dedicated to the constitution of the core of the Lab and the consolidation of its capacity, I think that we are now ready to begin our principal challenge: go out and meet the population and begin to see to what extent we can be an appropriate answer to questions of everyday life.
We hope to discover that we are a “tool” that little people can easily use. We are planning workshops with women, a caravan inside the country and the thematic opening of the space dedicated to small craftsmen. The main axes of the program are: *Fablab and rurality, *Fablab and informal sector in Africa, *FabLab and improved quality of urban life. I think we will be judged based on our ability to handle basic issues in Togo, .
You are very passionate about the Makerspace. How the activities of the center are currently connected to the real life needs of Togolese people?
The projects which are developed in the WoeLab might have implications in all kind of field. An example : currently Sam, one of the Lab residents, is working on an independent refrigeration system working with solar energy. It’s a project, which if it succeeds, might change the life our moms in the markets.
That being said, we don’t want to reduce our work to activities that correspond to people need (It would seem like we always decide for them and there is the risk to be paralyzed if we have no ideas). We want the empowerment of the communities but also in the choice of their project.
This is why the option is to first enable ordinary people with the power to make by themselves through the acquisition of the mastery of iconic technologies of MakerSpaces like the RepRap. Then we bet that populations, when they will be initiated, will transform the use of those technologies to develop themselves their own projects closest to their daily preoccupations.
That’ also why we would like to promote the multiplications of MakerSpaces beginning from ours. We are convinced that more communities will be free from the influence of our WoeLab and will conquer new territories, more we will achieve our goal : discovering new problematics. We are going in this direction with the ‘RepLab’ program.
Yes, the RepLab program is with Archicamp, these two processes which allow you to develop an utopia which you call “African HubCités”. What is it exactly?
It’s a concept of alternative urbanization. It wants to give back to our populations the power of transforming the place where they are living thanks to a program of « Camps » of architecture (to propose solutions) and « Labs » (to make and replicate solutions). This concept might encourage the african city of tomorrow to become responsible and virtuous with an experimental architecture which will use local improved materials. We begin to experiment this method in some areas in Lomé. I am working on this project in our community. It’s probably one of the most ambitious project of WoeLab.
Obviously you need support and additional tools and equipment for the center, what are your current needs and how could our readers help you?
We do not have the same resources as other african FabLab witch are directly under the MIT Labs Initiative or other Western networks initiatives. And to be faithful to the hacker ethic, we have chosen so far not to introduce funding requests to public institutions or big groups. So we fund our space trough spontaneous acts of solidarity and donations.
We collect all kinds of tools and materials that can still be used. And we are mainly asking for new projects and are paying attention to all kind of collaboration proposals with other HackerSpaces or Fablabs in the world. We also offer our know-how and lessons learned to any Makerspace which would arrive in Togo.
We’ve recently received Mo Ajala from Nigeria, who is developing the idea on an innovative and ambitious project in Lagos implying the FabLab concept . This kind of visits is very enriching and stimulating for our dynamics. Roughly we would like to favor the exchanges of services, experiences and skills sharing rather than the financial exchanges. It will be possible soon also support directly projects incubated in the Lab via online sponsorship web sites.
As a Maker, what are your joys? What are the challenges?
I feel a bit like a traveler who has discovered this possibility that Einstein had suggested and that mathematicians call ‘wormhole’: a channel which allows, in a time folded on itself, to communicate in two different space-time .
I observe the young people of this small community that I manage, I see an incredible potential; but which requires to be put in the service of a real vision. It is certainly, for me personally, the biggest challenge. The African are submerged by information and have difficulty in sorting out.
If WoeLab can very modestly contribute to be this software, which allows to identify, to hold and to sublimate what is good for us, then the adventure will have been worth it.
Thanks Koffi. How could our readers get in contact with you?
Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Woelab/183098345158986
Tel.: +228 92009143 / +33 665983209