The DIY “Reaction”
Re-use. Re-cycle. Re-purpose. Mix this in with a power-dose of ingenuity, passion, and concern for the environment, and you have the African answer to the big-factory corporate goods only affordable to consumers in the west. Call it the “DIY (Do It Yourself) Movement” as they do in the United States. When you’re in Africa, call it “Bush Mechanics.”
We’ve known for a long time that in Africa poverty has the ability to breed incredible ingenuity; or, necessity becomes the mother of invention. When money is virtually non-existent, but there is a pressing need to solve real and immediate problems, a manufacturing, engineering and technological ethos can emerge; this is the ignition of the imagination in its purest form, unadulterated by the confines attached to money and profit margins.
Picture a world where “garbage” is cannibalized to create low-tech, low-bandwidth, Velcro fastened necessities like toaster ovens and radio stations, and you have an idea of what it means to be a “bush mechanic.” It is by no means for the lazy; Bush Mechanics takes motivation, ambition, risk and above all, acceptance that there are no financial rewards and few accolades for your work. You’re into Bush Mechanics for yourself, your loved ones and no one else.
There’s a great satisfaction that comes with thinking of Africa as being on the “cutting edge” in its own unique way; after all, for the longest time, it has been a continent that has been cast aside. The Bush Mechanics mentality and movement is proof that it is possible to make something out of nothing.
Something Out of Nothing
It’s difficult to not be amazed by the water distillation process created by the Masai of Kenya’s Rift Valley. The simple set-up of pipes positioned over the steam vents of Mount Suswa – a massive double-volcanic crater – allows water to condense on the pipes and flow into strategically placed drums. The result: an incredible and abundant source of clean water that sustains hundreds of Masai villagers and their cattle.
The forward-thinking Bush Mechanics company Trashy Bags, based in Accra, Ghana, turns discarded plastic into useful carriers. Employing over 100 local workers, the company collects used water bottles and ice cream bags and turns them into long-lasting backpacks and other useful bags. In a city that produces north of 22,000 tons of plastic waste per year, African ingenuity is going a long way towards creating a healthier environment for its inhabitants.
Ghanaians have also found new ways of generating power for commonly used, battery-powered devices. Utilizing aluminum cans, plastic water bottles and salt water as an electrolyte, they’ve created low-cost, environmentally-friendly batteries that generate electricity from the oxidation of aluminum. The result: A green alternative to commercial batteries, which are notorious for seeping toxic waste into groundwater.
In Eritrea, a self-taught inventor, Seymoon, has created the ultimate solar-powered cooker utilizing a satellite dish wrapped in aluminum foil. The result: A device that can cook food without the use of non-renewable fuels – a major asset in Seymoon’s home region where deforestation has been devastating. Of his decidedly DIY attitude that laughs in the face of commercialization, Seymoon says, “It must be an American phrase, ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’. America and all the other industrialized nations make the trash, it somehow ends up in my country, and then I turn it into a treasure. Satellite dishes bring me useless TV shows and bad news. Once I have had my way with them, they feed my family.”
For all of the visionary Seymoon’s out there in the far corners of Africa, the continent now boasts an incredible showcase for their talents.
Conference of Innovators
Maker Faire, thanks to its dynamic nature, isn’t the easiest thing to describe. In its simplest form, it’s a showcase of creativity and resourcefulness. But really, it’s a celebration of the Maker mindset that spans across the DIY movement and hundreds of other regional and international movements that seek to find freedom through innovation.
Founded in San Mateo, California in 2006 as the premier conference for grassroots innovation, the Make Faire event eventually spread to cities around the United States, and then the world. Ghana now proudly hosts its own Maker Faire, bringing together the brightest minds in Africa to share their ingenious low-finance concepts.
Maker Faire has been a huge success in the impoverished nation; presentations by the Afrobotics team – a cadre of scientists, engineers and innovators who aspire to utilize robotics to imbue the next generation of Africans – have inspired young African students to pursue science, engineering and technology in school.
Maker Faire allows leading innovators the opportunity to show off their latest creations and poses on-the-spot challenges to creative teams. One challenge provided teams with 5 plastic bags and 30 minutes to see what kind of problem they could address. A micro-hydroelectric project, a plush pillow, a drip irrigation device and a telephone cover during inclement weather were the thought-provoking results.
Term of Endearment
Bush Mechanics goes far beyond cool and useful innovation; it is the ultimate hybridization of innovation. It’s the connection that is made between Africa’s roboticists and agriculturalists, its educators and artists, and its venture capitalists and digerati. It’s a culture of information as much as it is of production. Bush Mechanics is a term of endearment to all of those who are bold enough to think outside of the box, or the circle as it may be. And in Africa, Bush Mechanics is the way of the future.