Jay Cousins travaille à icecairo, au Caire, un jeune espace de co-working/incubateur de start-ups green tech qui aura bientôt son laboratoire de fabrication. Cette structure, aidée par GIZ, l’agence de coopération allemande, est appelée à être déclinée dans d’autres villes, comme à Alexandrie.
Cet Anglais qui se décrit comme un « catalyseur de communauté », est revenu sur les liens que ICE entretient et souhaite développer avec les hackers. Extraits de notre entretien.
« En général, nous souhaitons donner les moyens aux gens de résoudre leurs propres problèmes. iceairo est centré spécifiquement sur l’environnement mais on se concentre sur les technologies open source qui sont un outil d’habilitation et d’empowerment car un tas de problèmes ont déjà été résolus ailleurs dans le monde. L’open source et la mentalité hacker sont vraiment essentiels pour nous pour beaucoup de ce que nous faisons : « si tu n’aimes pas quelque chose alors change-le. »
Donc les deux vont vraiment main dans la main et ces espaces encouragent les gens à adopter cette approche, prendre la responsabilité de changer, d’améliorer leur environnement en se regroupant pour des activités ou en montant leurs propres projets dans l’électronique comme du suivi qualité, utiliser l’énergie solaire ou le biogaz. Ces systèmes sont construits sur des idées déjà existantes, des technologies open source appliquées avec du matériel approprié disponible sur place. Toutes ces choses ont le hacking, le fait de faire et de prendre de nouvelles approches à la base.
Nous essayons d’encourager cet esprit de collaboration, que les gens à partager ce qu’ils savent et ce qu’ils ont appris et construisent des choses ensemble pour qu’ils puissent élaborer leur propre business et résoudre leurs problèmes d’une façon qui soit économiquement viable. Le hacking est la compétence centrale que nous espérons développer avec le business, la collaboration et la communication, il y a un tas de choses différents qui se complètent mutuellement. Le hacking est vraiment en haut de nos priorités. »
« Business », le mot n’est pas tabou. Revenant sur la création récente d’icealexandria, qui partage locaux et projets avec un hackerspace (et son url Facebook) et des jeunes passionnés de robotique, Jay Cousins détaille l’approche de GIZ :
« Nous essayons d’avoir une approche plus commerciale qui puisse être durable pour créer ces opportunités. Donc les découpes laser leur seront louées, ce qui les encouragera à mettre en place des ateliers et à construire des produits ce qui les aideront à nous racheter ces outils. Il y a donc une pression pour démontrer que cela est économiquement viable.
C’est un exemple mais nous faisons cela pour chaque outil que nous leur donnons et tous les composant du hackerspace ou du fab lab – appelez-le comme vous voulez – doit être accompagné d’un modèle économique car autrement ce sont juste des jouets et je ne me sens pas à l’aise avec le fait de donner des jouets. Nous voulons que tout ce que nous donnons ait de la valeur, aide vraiment la communauté et lui permette de se renforcer. »
Une approche très pragmatique qui peut faire fuir les hackers les plus « puristes »…
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Since 2009 Maker Faire settled in Africa. In 2011, its 3rd edition took place in Cairo, Egypt. We interviewed Emeka Okafor, an entrepreneur from New York, and initiator of the Maker Faire Africa (MFA). Here is an excerpt, about a sore point : isn’t there a form a cultural and technical neo-colonialism at work ?
Before we start, a focus on the terminology for the newbies : what’s the difference between an hacker and a maker ? Both terms are often mistaken : both communities are very close and favor creativity, ingeniosity, sharing. Makers however focus more on hardware whereas hackers can also work on software. Historically speaking, it is their playing field, since back at the M.I.T in the sixties. It is also said that hackers are more subversive than makers : hacking is a state of mind that applies to all fields, and particularly the political one with a strong stance on everything that concerns digital freedoms. Finally, hackers also enjoy taking the beaten paths.
All of this of course, is merely theoretical, all that really matters is what we do.
One could easily object that the western hacking community is applying its views and ways – even sometimes with commercial purposes – to the African one. For instance, take MakerBot, they donated a 3D printer to Maker Faire Africa in Cairo last year. Even the word « hacking » itself is an western one, the figure of the maker is strongly tied to american history, as a self-made country. The people of Africa could use or create their own words, they might already have ones and we don’t even know about it. What do you think ?
I think you bring up a very very important subject, and this is something we like to emphasize within the places we go [with Maker Faire]. We don’t see this as someone coming in and saying “this what making is”. More often than not, the making was occuring there, before we arrived and called it « making ». So if anything, I personnally see making as empowering those already on the ground, and giving them a platform to talk about the importance of what they are doing as opposed to coming in from New York or London or Paris and trying to tell people “this is what making is”.
And I think it is important, when we look at Lamba Labs, when I have had discussions with people like Bilal [Ghalib, ed. is an american of iraqi origin who helps communities set up hackerspaces with his organization Gemsi] and some of my other colleagues like Jennifer Wolfe [ed . a designer, member of MFA] , one of the things we emphasize is the need to reappropriate the name and have the people there understand it and understand it as they feel they should understand it. It’s not about what happens in San Francisco or London, or Moscow, it has to be how people in Tunis or Cairo see it.
I am not familiar with Egypt, I am somewhat more familiar with places like Nigeria, and one of the thing that I see as a similarity between many of these countries, is that there’s always a need to think that it’s better if it’s from the outside. Or that it is of a higher standard, and we overlook the brilliant work that has been done on the ground.
So, if we are to look at where hacking and making come from and at these labs and spaces growing in the future and the thinking around it, it should be about recovering what we already have. And even choosing its own name for it. I would like to see events like Maker Faire Africa that are not called Maker Faire Africa, that are based on beautiful, evocative, national terms. It’s really important that people do not see this as something that is foreign, because even here in the United States of America, many people when you say « making » will tell you « we’ve been doing it for years, what’s the big deal ? » That kind of conversation is even happening here in the USA.
So I think whether it’s in Cairo or in Beirut, in Lagos, in Kenya, or in India, people need to say essentially that this is about us being creative in a broad range of fields and admiring what we do. If you go to a Maker Faire in New York City, you see people from the local food community, being proud of the food they make. Why can’t that be happening in Cairo, why can’t we have the crafts people from the rural parts of wherever in Middle East or North Africa reexamine what they’re doing and then reblending that with what is new and create something that is unique ?
So I am very much for the localization of the maker movement and the orientation towards assessing and valuing what each country, what each region, each culture has, that is unique to them and celebrating it.
Taking it further :
Emeka Okafor’s blog, Timbuktu Chronicles
Surely there are many typos, don’t kick us, we’re not sub-editors nor professional translators, we do everything ourselves with our two pairs of hands and eyes 🙂 Point them – the typos huh – out to us gently, in the comments or by email hackerscitearabe [at] gmail [dot] com.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Initially published on Owni.eu