Makerspaces: A growing phenomenon in North Africa with an immense potential

Photo courtesy of Pixabay via Venngage

While technology has been reshaping education for more than a decade, the importance of equipping students with 21st century skills, especially the ability to innovate has become prominent. Although not a new concept, makerspaces have become a trending topic in education, globally enabling students and other individuals to learn through hands-on experiences and fostering their creativity through experimentation.

What are makerspaces?

A makerspace is a place for hands-on learning where individuals of different backgrounds gather to design, create or develop ideas into products. Hands-on learning takes the concepts taught through traditional classroom lectures and enables participants to transform these concepts into real-world understanding. Makerspaces are not only for students, but they rather enable young makers and potential entrepreneurs from all walks of life or any age to connect to key players in the formal market. Existing in different forms, makerspaces also provide youth, students and potential entrepreneurs with opportunities to access sophisticated technologies and resources to produce products or prototypes at very low -almost minimal- costs. Makerspaces can take the form of for-profit or non-profit organizations; they could also be hosted in a school building or a university campus or they could just be a group of people sharing space and equipment.

In a working paper titled “The Maker Movement across North Africa” published with Open African Innovation Research –OpenAIR AUC School of Business Professor of Economics and Founding Director of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) Nagla Rizk, in collaboration with the center’s Associate Director Nagham El Houssamy present findings related to the operational dynamics of the makerspaces, intellectual property (IP) appropriation, and the notion of innovation scalability. The authors explore the growing makerspaces movement in North Africa with special emphasis on Egypt and some highlights from Tunisia and Morocco.

Makerspaces in North Africa: modes of operation and challenges

The advent of the makerspaces’ expansion in North Africa is associated with the Arab uprisings in January 2011. With the spread of the sentiments of change among Arab countries, the will to fight social and economic exclusion, and the spread of civic movements, untraditional forms of organizations such as makerspaces started to have a place in the community. These spaces act as informal centers for makers to gather and transfer their skills into workable solutions to serve their communities and solve problems they face in their daily lives.

Makerspaces come in three categories: (1) community-based makerspaces, (2) university-based makerspaces, and (3) private-sector-run makerspaces. Some of the makerspaces in North Africa have been founded in line with the Fab Foundation. The Fab Foundation was created in 2009 out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms Fab Lab (short for Fabrication Lab) program, to “provide access to the tools, the knowledge and the financial means to educate, innovate and invent using technology and digital fabrication to allow anyone to make (almost) anything, and thereby creating opportunities to improve lives and livelihoods around the world.”

The study interviewed seven makerspaces in Egypt, two in Tunisia and one in Morocco. Makerspaces in Egypt are mainly concentrated in the capital city of Cairo. The cities of Alexandria, El Minya, Mansoura, and Assiut each host between one to four makerspaces. Makerspaces interviewed in Egypt are mainly community-based with the exception of Fab Lab AUC, which is university-based. They are mostly self-funded, with a few resorting to crowd funding. Fab Lab in New Cairo (FLiNC) is the only space in the study that is privately funded. Most of the makerspaces collaborate with each other on events and exchange of information and equipment. For instance, Fab Lab Egypt organizes the annual Maker Faire Cairo, bringing together makers from different parts of Egypt to showcase their work and collaborate.

In Tunisia, makerspaces are concentrated in the capital city, Tunis. Compared to Egypt, there is less widespread affiliation with the Fab Foundation for the makerspaces in Tunisia. On the other hand, Morocco makerspaces are fewer than Egypt but more spread out geographically than both makerspaces in Egypt and Tunisia. Most of the identified makerspaces in Morocco are associated with the Fab Foundation.

While most makerspaces operate on the same principle of promoting innovation and education, there is still some differences in the focus of each one. For instance, Karakeeb makerspace- founded in 2013 in what used to be the storage space of the French library of the Jesuit Cultural Center in Alexandria- aims to spread technology and knowledge of manufacturing digital products to people with a non-engineering background. While Level One Tunisia makerspace established in 2017 in the city of Tunis focuses on helping makers in the gaming and video industry, specifically on 3D gaming, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR); areas the founders believe have not been tackled by the maker movement in Tunisia.

Despite the inadequate funding, makerspaces adopt an openness culture in this regard. In other words, they attempt to raise funds and depend on financial resources other than the minimal fees they charge makers, in order not to create access barriers to the spaces. Fees can take the form of monthly memberships or hourly rates. Four out of the ten makerspaces in the study had a membership structure in place; the remaining six spaces charged per hour or per day, or according to the costs of the materials used.

One of the major challenges that face makerspaces in Egypt is licensing and registration, which is a requirement for starting any type of business. Officially, there is no specific categorization for the registration of makerspaces, which makes them resort to registering themselves as any other entity like an internet café or as a non-governmental organization. Addressing this issue will help the makerspace community in Egypt.

Makerspaces as an incubator for innovation

Whether makers create low-cost solutions to individual or societal problems or whether they use the space for educational purposes as in the case of Fab Lab AUC or Fab Lab Ecole Nationale d’Ingénieurs de Tunis (ENIT), it comes without saying that makerspaces can be regarded as small hubs or incubators for innovation, learning and discovery, or for solution-based purposes. For instance, one maker in Fab Lab Egypt created a low-cost artificial limb, a personal project addressing a larger societal problem to which few low-cost solutions exist. Another example from a makerspace called Innovation, Collaboration and Entrepreneurship in Alexandria (ICE Alex) was that of a water purification filter that uses palm tree branches and stones, which was developed by a girl whose parent suffered from kidney problems due to contaminated water. This locally relevant low-cost alternative works almost as well as the expensive industrialized version.

A place for learning and skill development

In today’s complex global economy, the once popular formula of going to school, studying hard, graduating with honors and then climbing the corporate ladder has become obsolete. It has become essential for young individuals to understand that the job market has become similar to a maze that they need to navigate through skillfully. For that reason, they need to engage in creative and critical thinking and start using both formal and informal ways of learning. All of this is manifested in the makerspaces culture. Peer to peer collaboration among users as well as encouraging “the do-it-yourself concept” are distinguishing attributes of the makerspace society which in turn deepens the understanding of a certain idea or concept. This type of learning enables makers to develop a multitude of skills necessary for building an entrepreneurial mindset. For example, one female maker started an accessory and decoration business based on products she designs and creates at Karakeeb makerspace in Egypt. The makerspace provided her with the design and implementation skills needed for her business, in addition to affordable access to machinery. Makers at Karakeeb had also created an emergency lamp, powered by old mobile phones to address Egypt’s power cuts that used to happen several years ago.

Is there a need for formalized Intellectual Property (IP) Protection in makerspaces?

Despite the emphasis on knowledge sharing, collaboration and the open environment that makerspaces offer, founders of the makerspaces studied stated that makers were often cautious of sharing their ideas for fear of copying. This, however, was not the case in any of the makerspaces in which students were the users, and the end result was an academic project.

Despite that, the study has concluded that formal IP protection is not currently needed in the makerspaces surveyed. This is because the maker culture in North Africa is still in an early stage of development, and thus makers and the products being created have not reached the state where protection or formalization are issues to consider.

Scalability: turning innovations into commercial business

It is one thing to create or innovate a product and another thing to capitalize on it by publicizing, selling or commercializing. Most of the makerspaces managers interviewed for the study perceive that scaling-up opportunities are threatened by the lack of required skills and the financial capabilities for turning a project into a successful growing business. The lack of the necessary feasibility studies for scaling innovations is another threat to turning an innovation into a sustainable business. The only exception to this is when makers used external resources like accelerators to commercialize their products.

It could be argued that makerspaces while possessing an entrepreneurial spirit cannot be linked to job creation or to solving the unemployment problems in the region. Currently their role is evident in addressing local problems in a creative way with very low costs, while providing a non-traditional voluntary learning environment for students and young innovators and providing them with the necessary skills to be well prepared and integrated in the job market.

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