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Africa: the New Cradle of Hacking

Until recently spaces in Africa for hackers to meet and build creative communities have been in short supply. But the success of Maker Faire Africa could change all that, in a continent in search of new solutions to old problems.

by Sabine Blanc On October 19, 2011

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Journaliste digitale en mutation perpétuelle, et j'aime ça.


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A hackerspace is a meeting place for hackers, those folk who make creative use of technology. They are virtually absent in Africa, with less than a dozen in the whole continent. By contrast they are blossoming in the rest of the world, in the West but also in South America and Asia.

But it’s a situation that could change soon, judging by the success of the most recent Maker Faire Africa which, along the lines of its western counterpart, gathered together hundreds of makers (those believers in the church of DIY, and a group with close ties to the hacker community) from across the continent in Cairo, Egypt. “There was enormous enthusiasm,” explains Emeka Okafor, one of the event’s organizers. “This (event) alone shows that there is an appetite for hackerspaces and makerspaces.”

It’s this enthusiasm which bodes well for the future of those who do-it-themselves on a continent ready made to embrace the concept. DIY here is not a fad for bourgeois geeks; economic underdevelopment makes it a necessity. “Here in Africa, people really do invent and build things from scratch,” says Tarek Ahmed, who created Cairo Hacker Space. “In Europe and the United States hackers are luckier, they don’t really have to worry about a whole lot.”

Hackers who don’t know they’re hackers

Several factors can explain the current low profile of hacking on the continent.

Hello Sabine, I’ve got intermittent Internet.

That was the reply I got from Emeka to my request for an interview over Skype. Despite the success of cyberactivism in the Maghreb countries, we shouldn’t forget the poor quality of Internet connection in Africa. Without question a hackerspace is currently regarded as something of a luxury, despite often sharing roots and aesthetics with the squat movement, as well as a love of DIY repair. “The hackerspaces are a relatively new phenomenon that tend to emerge in quite affluent societies with above average incomes,” explains Emeka Okafor.

“The answer is simple,” adds Ahmed Tarek, “we don’t know what (hacking) is! And actually, here in Egypt I find some hackers and hackerspaces who don’t realise that that’s what they are.”

“We are always looking for funding for the years ahead,” continues Bosun Tijani, founder of Nigeria HUB – Co-creation Hub. “A hackerspace is difficult to run as a purely commercial enterprise. The ones you find in Africa are run as non-profit social enterprises. Attracting investment is difficult and requires a good understanding of funding sources and social enterprise models. But the most successful trial cases are coming out of Africa, so there will be more and more.”

“In places where there’s unemployment, people may automatically think that it’ll be a challenge to start an organization that has fixed monthly expenses (rent, electricity, Internet),” continues Mitch Altman, founder of the Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco. “And in truth, it is energy intensive, expensive and sometimes there’s a stigma attached to setting up a hackerspace in certain democracies.”

That stigma, which sometimes exists in Europe and the United States, is present on a continent known for its dictators and authoritarian regimes. “Certainly when people fear their government it makes them cautious about being seen as belonging to a group that does creative projects together,” suggests Mitch Altman.

A thousand flourishing hackerspaces

For Mitch Altman, the economics are not an obstacle. “What people are beginning to realize all over the world is that in poor countries the monthly expenses are low, and therefore to start a hackerspace is actually easier in poor areas. That’s why right now there is a lot of interest. Since we scheduled our trip less than a month ago, a lot of people have contacted me saying they want to start a hackerspace in Africa.” It’s a view that Tarek Ahmed supports:

We need hackerspaces more than anywhere else, because they’re perfect for countries with economic problems.

Hackerspaces

And if the spaces are easy to set up, the momentum should start to build. “Access and community collaborative spaces are the key to the development of hackerspaces,” believes Emeka Okafor. “Creative & reflective are moving in to accept the challenge,” adds Mitch Altman. “When the opportunity exists to get together in supportive communities, people see that they can help, and want to help. Around the world, including in countries where authoritarian leaders are losing their power, hackers find ways to come together and maintain communication when their leaders cut the infrastructure. This kind of fraternal approach tends to strengthen the community, so the hacker scene will grow faster in countries like Egypt and throughout the Arab Spring.”

Pragmatic hacking

Bosun Tijani emphasises a less grandiose role of hackerspaces: to be places where concrete solutions to real problems are developed.

We have many hackers here that reinvent the wheel. Our way of encouraging them is to get them to focus on real problems. The best way (to do that) is to put them with people who understand those real problems; that’s our raison d’être. The interest in developing hackerspaces demonstrates that they can be brought to Africa. We need to cultivate a culture of using knowledge in the context of local problems, and hackerspaces encourage the implementation of this knowledge in finding new ways to solve problems.

That includes projects like Ideas 2020. On this crowdsourcing platform, citizens post their ideas for “The Vision: By 2020″, which intends to make Nigeria one of the 20 world powers by 2020.

“For hackerspaces based in Africa, practicality and relevance must be part of the equation. Their basic goal should be to be more pragmatic,” continues Emeka Okafor. “There’s a chance that the people we see on Afrilabs (a network of technology incubators) will propagate hackerspaces, through their involvement in open source hardware.”

L'Egg Bot par Evil Mad Scientist

It’s a practical view which no doubt explains why the few hackerspaces there are actually listed as co-working spaces, in line with the “real” world, cognisant of business and not referring to themselves as hackerspaces. It’s the case with Nigeria HUB – Co-creation Hub. It wasn’t to avoid scaring people with the term “hacker” that they chose that particular name, as Bosun Tijani explains:

“(The term) hackerspace for us means more a space for geeks, and we’re more concerned with the way in which Nigerians can co-create solutions to social problems by using technology. So the focus is more on the problems that are addressed, the collective intelligence of people, and using technology as a tool. We believe that focusing on real problems and needs will help us to create technological tools that can be used for real problems and also to promote the power of technology. So HUB – Hub Co-creation is not just for geeks and engineers but also for entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, investors and anyone interested in how technology can help provide ideas about potential uses to address social problems.”

Arab Spring countries, Kenya, Nigeria …

In addition to the countries of the Arab Spring, Emeka Okafor also sees great potential in sub-Saharan countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Uganda: “They are young, enthusiastic, curious about technology and relatively liberated.” We’re  betting on Kenya in particular, which is in the middle of a technology boom, a stark contrast to the cliched image Westerners would have us believe. It was here that Ushaidi, a crisis monitoring platform, was developed.

Thanks to the global network, help will also come from Western countries, in the shape of people like Mitch Altman and Bilal Ghalib (from All Hands Active hackerspace in Ann Arbor, MI), who successfully launched a fundraising campaign which allowed them to come and play Santa Claus:

“We’re here to share our long experience with anyone who wants to set up a hackerspace in their city. One of the great benefits of our Kickstarter campaign was getting the word out. Before MFA we held two meetings on hackerspaces, to prepare people for setting up or joining a hackerspace, and there will be two more before we leave. I taught around 300 people how to solder during a three-day workshop, with kits and soldering irons purchased with the donated money. The new hackerspace in Cairo assembled the MakerBot, donated by MakerBot Industries, as well as the Egg-Bot, donated by Evil Mad Scientist – and they were used in 3D printing workshops. Minal has given workshops in fabric painting. Bilal gave several Arduino workshops with Arduino donated by a new local electronics store, Future-Electronics.”

And after reading the words of Tariq Ahmed, it’s tempting to agree with Altman’s enthusiasm.

Our grandparents built great things like the pyramids, then everything stopped. But we will bring back the greatness in Egypt.


Photos of Makerfaire Cairo from Mitch Altman [cc-by-sa]
Official festival ilustrations available via http://makerfaireafrica.com

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