What are the recipes that make fablabs a success? Born in 2011, the Ouagalab is the oldest makerspace in West Africa. Our maker Caroline Grellier followed the progress of their construction site in 2014. Two years later, she met up with the community, as close-knit as ever.
Ouagadougou, special envoy
Even though the Nubian vault of the Ouagalab slightly took on water during the heavy rainfalls in August in Ouagadougou, the same cannot be said of makers. On the contrary, still with a good head on their shoulders, with this willpower that characterizes them, projects are making progress and ideas are coming from all sides, with the very same atmosphere I experienced two years ago: cheerfulness for sure.
Your lab? Do it yourself!
I discover the working space of the Ouagalab in a small earthen street (named von here) of the Kalgodin district, 500 meters from the road. Gildas Guiella, co-founder of this Burkinabe lab, retrieves the keys to the gate, entrusted to a neighbor, a saleswoman who runs a mini food shop.
“Since 2011, we are the only makerspace in Burkina Faso. What distinguishes us is that we built our space on our own, partly thanks to participative funding, but mainly using our bare hands, all together.”
Gildas Guiella, co-founder of the Ouagalab
The site was completely reorganized and the Nubian vault takes center stage. Outside, tires, bits of furniture, a solar cooker and soil, to put in place a future ecologic vegetable patch experimenting new growing techniques, more or less connected.
The customary torrential rain in August flooded some districts of the capital and give the site the appearance of a swamp. No matter what, there’s a lot of work to be done, as everyday. Inside, in the cool of the earthen edifice, two large tables where resistors and printed circuit boards, ongoing prototypes, drones being dismantled, small pieces printed in 3D are spread out.
A merry gang of buddies
Rock solid determination, a measure of kindliness and a strong sense of friendship, here is the recipe for the Ouagalab community. Some, like Gildas Guiella, Kisito Gamene and Hamed Ouedraogo, have known each other since they were teenagers and are neighbors. Five years after the beginning of the adventure, no one has left, the team continues to grow and spread its values! The Ouagalab gladly identifies itself with a baobab space, where in the African culture, inhabitants gathered under this palaver tree to exchange views on the future needs of the locality while seeking practical solutions.
“The cornerstone for us is the community of motivated young people who want to act and change tings, explains Gildas Guiella. We want to demonstrate that obstacles are in fact opportunities. We find solutions through collective intelligence, solidarity and sharing. And out of the question for us to rush towards machines. We do not face the same realities as in the West, therefore problems need to be addresses differently.” Often, animated discussions on projects are continued in the evening around a Brakina, the beer of Burkina Faso, between two jokes.
Passionate, some even stay up all night as long as some bug on Arduino has not been found or stay behind to see the end of a 3D print. The roof of the nubian vault is in fact been considered as a future sleeping area, plans are already in mind! The community is expanding (with some women too) and the space will soon be too cramped. This is why the construction of an extension, still made from earth, is on the menu for 2017.
E-health, e-agriculture and e-ducation
Since its creation in 2011, the Ouagalab and its projects are now organized in three lines that are all a priority seeing the local problems that need to be addressed.
First line, e-health, or how to improve well-being and the knowledge of healthcare information thanks to the tools and applications developed in the lab. There is for example a program to monitor a pregnancy by SMS, a “Drinkable Water for All” project that aims to improve access to drinkable water in the countryside or still Carto Malaria, a prevention tool. Kisito Gamene, geographer and member of the Ouagalab, explains that “Carto Malaria is a social project that aims to be a solution to raise awareness and prevent malaria, the main cause of mortality here in Africa.” Concretely, from Open Street Map “we geo-locate illegal dump areas considered at risk in the presence of stagnant water, popular with mosquitoes”, he adds.
The second line revolves around connected agriculture projects. The SMS platform Baoré aims to connect farmers living in remote areas and send them information on the weather forecast, market prices, etc. It will go online in the next few weeks. Allowing time for Jean-Michel Korsaga, one of the coders of the Ouagalab, to work on the final details.
The arrival of drones in the agricultural sector did not leave Christian Cédric Toé indifferent. Specialist in mechanical engineering, he is already working with Gildas Guiella on a version of their drone made in Burkina Faso, to allow crops to be photographed and collect data in order to increase productivity and optimize efforts.
Finally, the Ouagalab takes its role as a digital instructor very seriously, in a country where the penetration rate of the IT tool remains very low. Relying on project Jerry, computers in containers, and by multiplying trainings and workshops, makers are continuing to arouse curiosity and the wish to do, from salvaged computer items and open source software.
Mutation towards social entrepreneurship
“We don’t really care about being in the limelight. Here we just do.”
Gildas Guiella, Ouagalab co-founder
Thanks to its dynamism, the Burkinabe community of makers is becoming quite popular on the international scene. Partnerships with foundations and NGOs (Acra Fundation, Fondation pour l’Afrique BF) are coming one after another.
Aside from the associative component of DIY promotion, the team wishes to turn professional by putting their skills to good avail, in the form of service delivery, but also and especially by inspiring the young to gain an entrepreneurial spirit. True ascendant innovation factory, the Ouagalab plans to create its own incubation space for small and young enterprises, built up against its workshop.
“The solution is inside us. In each person, there is a form of genius, and at the Ouagalab, we serve the development of the country, that we know better than anyone. We are creating our own Silicon Valley: the Faso Valley.”
Gildas Guiella, Ouagalab co-founder
Even though the action and the impact of the Ouagalab with the young is undeniable, the makers are now seeking to earn the trust of the authorities, to be heard by the State, in order to take part in the digital process of the country while carrying their values at the heart of an entrepreneurial momentum. Hamed Ouedraogo, expert in local development, says it in another way: “Seeing the young progressing on their projects, developing their skills within the lab is truly moving. Some find their bearings with us and it is an immense satisfaction.”
And tomorrow? The Ouagalab intends to open other labs inside the country, for even more local action.