Maker Space Movement in South Africa – 2020 and beyond

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To understand where the Maker Movement is today in South Africa, and where it may be heading, we need to go back to its African inception in 2009.

The Maker Movement began in America in 2005, when the first Maker Faire was launched by the same people behind MAKE Magazine. Four years later the U.S. Faire’s brand reached African shores, with the first African Maker Faire taking place in Accra.

Four more African Maker Faires followed: Nairobi in 2010; Cairo in 2011; Lagos in 2012; and Johannesburg in 2014. Cape Town would host two Maker Faires in 2015 and 2016, before the South African iteration would be shelved.

This didn’t mean the end of the Maker Movement in South Africa – or on the continent – or course. The movement has grown, with notable makerspaces including Ghana’s Kumasi HiveGear Box in Nairobi, and Bytehub Embedded in Yaba (Nigeria’s ‘Silicon Valley’). These, along with other African makerspaces, are shifting the perception that Africa is a technological ‘backwater’.

The African makerspace landscape has morphed beyond the Maker Movement’s tech-tinkering, hobbyist beginnings. The African movement is entrepreneurial, and makers – due to their socio-economic conditions – are forced to use out-of-the-box thinking to build solutions for everyday problems, and make a living from them. 

As one writer points out, the African Maker Movement comes down to three principles: “Hack. Make. Sell.” This type of thinking differs from middle-class South African makers in say, Sandton or Woodstock. In Ghana and Nigeria it’s difficult to get hold of things like microcontrollers or M2.5 screws, so, out of necessity, these maker-entrepreneurs have to come up with innovative hardware solutions.

They also use the likes of WhatsApp and Facebook groups, as well as meetups, to share making tips and tricks. These grassroots, easily-accessible groups are used as a resource for makers to find materials and components, as well as to get support for projects.

One thing we have to point out, is that there is no single ‘Maker Movement’. It’s a misnomer, as there are many different groups of makers within the movement. In South Africa, makerspaces have been established in major centres and townships alike, and while some may share similar activities or set-ups, no makerspace – or Maker community – is the same.

The Maker Movement can be found in both the suburbs and the townships. As the 2017 Open AIR paper ‘A Scan of South Africa’s Maker Movement’ points out, in South Africa the nature of makerspaces vary depending on location and socio-economic situations. For example, in Pretoria, the eKasi Lab Ga-Rankuwa makerspace is very different to House4Hack in Centurion. The eKasi makerspace is entirely government funded, and its members are mostly from low-income communities, while House4Hack has a membership-based revenue model and is located in a private house, in a middle-class suburb.

The Open AIR study found that some of South Africa’s maker communities, like House4Hack, are more focused on individual tinkering, while others, like the eKasi labs in Ga-Rankuwa and Soweto, focus on enterprise development. The study concluded that most makerspaces – like us here, at Made In Workshop – sit somewhere in-between.

While they differ socio-economically, South African makerspaces share similar challenges. The country is ranked one of the lowest in the world when it comes to maths and science – and these are key skills for makers to have (a terrifying 2012 study published by the University of Stellenbosch found that only 58.6% of South African children could be considered functionally numerate). Also, there is currently no school curricula that include manufacturing and digital fabrication in South African government schools. The cost of learning these skills privately or at university level becomes a big factor and stunts the growth of the movement. Factors such as load-shedding, water shortages, and an economy sliding towards a precipice don’t help.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Made In Workshop’s CEO, Henry Levine, predicts that the movement will grow further, albeit along distinct paths.

“In South Africa I see the Maker Movement heading in two directions: the non-profit that’s backed by donors or government, and the commercial for-profit movement that caters for small businesses,” he says.

According to Henry, for-profit makerspaces may run into barriers to keep growing, as there’s significant capital investment needed. But the advantages of spaces like these – like Made In Workshop – is that they’re geared towards innovation and entrepreneurship, unlike entry-level non-profits that have more of a basic Maker mandate.

What the Maker Movement will look like in 2030 remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure – it’ll keep growing.

Ready to be a part of the Maker Movement? Contact Made In Workshop on 087 701 4156, or take a look around at 65 Maria Street, Fontainebleau.

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