Africa’s technology entrepreneurs have quickly become the vanguard of innovation on the continent. Its many emerging tech hubs are getting besieged by Silicon Valley technology giants and mobile handset manufacturers. At the same time, the Maker Movement is gaining serious traction — Africans everywhere are using ordinary materials to solve everyday problems in a sustainable way. As technology continues to transform our world, business leaders, policy makers and citizens must look ahead and make plans to overcome the stiff challenges that still exist — from poor intellectual property laws, to a lack of angel investors, to substandard research and development facilities.
Africa can help many of its people rise out of poverty through innovation. Since 2000, our work at Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) has involved identifying pivotal and highly consequential technologies that are relatively easy to learn, then teaching Africans to use those technologies in a way that will help them build careers or start businesses. We know there are benefits to focusing on digital skills because they are marketable online. As it stands, there is often not much local demand for the skills we are providing our students, so the ability for them to distribute their work in virtual marketplaces is critical.
YTF has identified 3D printing technology as a highly impactful area that will soon influence lives all over the world. YTF piloted its 3D Africa program, a prototyping/engineering space for 3D printing, as part of the GE Garages Lagos program in 2014. In addition to sharing our innovative 3D printing curriculum, which is supplemented by massive open and online courses (MOOCs), YTF instructors trained more than 30 young entrepreneurs in 3D printing technology, design thinking, empathy and prototyping.
Just as personal computers and the Internet empowered individuals and organizations to create new types of information technology-driven jobs, so will 3D fabrication technologies change the way African entrepreneurs do business by allowing anyone to make (almost) anything. Africa’s economies are not industrial-based, but rely instead on the exploitation and export of the continent’s abundant natural resources. For example, the trade relationship between Africa and China, under which Africa exports raw minerals and imports manufactured goods, is estimated at about $166 billion. 3D printing technologies will help African citizens generate income independent of these kinds of relationships.
Giving Africans the ability to create their own opportunities is vitally important, as the educational system too often does not create any for them. Take the case of Chika, an electrical engineering student in his final year who comes to the Owerri Digital Village, YTF’s hub in Nigeria, and a student of 3D Africa. Chika has said that although he is not sure what he will to do after completing his studies, he wants to acquire as many skills as possible, since his future as a young graduate in Nigeria seems so uncertain.
In Nigeria, the educational system is failing to produce graduates suited for the labor market, a fact that has cost the country dearly. Unemployment rates among graduates remain high, and those who do find work suffer from low productivity. The problem is only getting worse — college graduates account for about 20 percent of youth unemployment.
21st century 3D printing technologies will provide local communities with the ability to produce and market products for domestic use and export, giving ordinary Africans the chances the educational system has not. Using 3D printing technologies, young Africans will successfully replace the manufacturing middleman, creating the first “Made in Africa” manufacturing model. As the technology evolves to become cheaper and more accessible, even those with limited resources will be able to use it.
I remember one of the students, Tochukwu, who designed a prototype for a special kind of reading stand. His invention promised to improve reading by 40 percent and had a potential market of 34 million customers. Seeing him so passionate about his idea, there was not a doubt in my mind that he could become an entrepreneur overnight if he was able to secure funding for mass production.
YTF has long focused on teaching technology skills to African women, as they are often the backbones of the communities they serve. Women entrepreneurs in Africa, though they often lack much formal education, could use 3D printing technology to design tools for their businesses — including hand tools for agricultural enterprises, small household goods (toys, containers), and food processing equipment. As the end users of the very products they would be designing, women entrepreneurs are well placed to take advantage of empathy, the core of the design process. In a design setting, empathy is the idea that you need to profoundly understand your customers in a personal way in order to best create products for them. 3D printing technology will give women the ability to design products specifically made to handle the kinds of tasks they face on a daily basis.
Artisans can use 3D printing technology to copy plastic prototypes and develop customized tools suitable for the market they are looking to serve. By linking women entrepreneurs to rapid-prototyping innovation processes, there is significant potential to improve the status of rural women by fostering an enterprise-oriented maker culture.
When discussing these topics, I always remember an instance when I walked into a classroom and saw Rita, one of our 13-year-old students, watching a woman present 3D printing technologies through one of our online course offerings. At that moment, Rita was thinking: “If a woman like me uses this technology well enough to be able to teach it, there must be something to it.” She was inspired, and almost unintentionally developed an interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) without feeling pressured.
It is vital to invest in youth because they have long productivity cycles and are co-creators of powerful information and communications technology (ICT) solutions. We need to encourage more children to learn 3D Printing and related technologies so we can provide them with a way to print themselves out of poverty.
I invite you to partner with us to inspire more girls like Rita by making a donation to YTF’s 3D Africa campaign on Indiegogo.
Top image: Courtesy of 3D Africa.
Njideka Harry is Founder of Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF).