The Togolese maker Léonce Atanley is multiplying Micro P Lab projects from his student room in Ghana. Interview with an advocate of 3D printing for Africa.
Léonce, we did a portrait of you a little more than two years ago, having discussed your large number of projects and the beginning of the creation of your own lab. Where does Micro P Lab stand now?
Micro P Lab, for “micro-projects for people”, is still in my room. There have been ups and downs, certain projects I talked to you about are not finished yet, such as 1001 radios, but we are carrying on and we believe in it—a crowdfunding campaign is under preparation. My lab has gained equipment and recognition and since then, I have developed a passion for 3D printing. I print nonstop because when printing, it gives me more creativity. I also officially registered the lab as a company in July 2016: I am developing training activities in 3D printing, I print parts and continue to make my own projects.
In order to make my lab run, I have to skip a few lessons during the week. I don’t sleep much because I am in contact with Chinese and American material suppliers nonstop via my Facebook page and they don’t have the same time zones… To save time and money, I have a network of representatives locally who send me parcels. It requires quite an organization!
Apart from machines, all I want in my room is my computer, electricity, Internet and something to eat. To make sure I always have power to run my machines, I set up solar panels on the roof of my residence. My machines run almost 24/7. Ask my neighbors, I prevent them from sleeping!
So you stay shut in your maker’s room?
(laughs) No! I even often go out! I roam Western Africa to meet makers in order to know what they do and see how to work together to find solutions to problems we all have in Africa. Whereas we have everything to do things ourselves, solutions too often come from outside.
My first trip was in Nigeria. I was told the country was an underdeveloped country, but I found a great asset there: the sun as a source of energy. Back in Ghana, I took lessons to understand how solar panels functioned and discover their secrets. I made me want to explore elsewhere again. I went all over Ghana, Togo, Benin, the Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso. And even if some countries are limited by education or access to Internet, they produce brilliant things. On the Togo-Burkina border, I saw a juice vendor who had transformed his little cart with a connected fridge and solar panel. I take a photograph of each DIY invention on my travels. I will soon exceed 3,000 shots! To finance them, I repaired air-conditioning units for a year. At the moment, I am contemplating a trip to East Africa to discover the labs of Kenya, Uganda and if possible also hop over to China.
How did you develop a passion for 3D printing?
I began my projects essentially with electronics. I always had to turn to a carpenter to make wooden casings and have a good finish. I salvaged my components on old devices. One didn’t look at the project for its finish! On Internet, I found companies in England or China that offered a good finish on aluminum or plastic containers but produced series of 10,000 pieces. Buying a few elements was going to cost me too much. I searched for a way of producing them myself and discovered 3D printing. And I immediately liked the fact that it was open source. Unfortunately, it was still too expensive for me. I therefore studied how it functioned by downloading videos and networking with makers from other continents. I discovered RepRap and I joined up.
I went to the Takoradi fablab in Ghana to use their laser cutter. Each morning, I watched videos to learn how to assemble the machine, I was so passionate I couldn’t sleep. Mastering this machine wasn’t as simple as I thought.
Why count on 3D printing in Africa?
It’s the future! A very powerful tool!
“Beyond being able to produce our own objects on a small scale in small series, well finished, without depending on foreign manufacturers, and that are as good as any objects from elsewhere, this technology has a strong potential. As in the field of medicine.”
I am under discussion with the medicine department of my university, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology (KNUST). Teachers have molded pieces that they find hard to replace to teach anatomy. The idea would be to model kits for students, printed true educational tools, to enable practice, break away from one’s imagination.
I am also teaching a student from the school’s art department who draws parts in 3D on software to visualize the final aspect of her project, to print in 3D. For lack of tools to produce her parts, she did everything by hand until now.
And what do you think about plastic filaments, when one knows that the African continent is polluted by this material?
Ah, big question! I am continuing to import my filaments from China and I will tell you why. The machine to make them I spotted costs almost $50,000 and produces 2,000 kg of filaments per month. There are clearly not enough outlets here. I studied the process of filaments to make a machine myself, but the finish is still too mediocre. I am continuing to work on it, even if the Asian competition is truly there regarding prices. I have a model project for this 4m long machine, completely DIY, that will produce 2kg of filaments per day. Just to prove it’s possible. The project will be open source but I am still lacking a bit if funding. The filament will be in recycled PET since there is enough plastic in Africa.
Between five to ten years, the demand for filament will be stronger. This leaves me time to begin to invest in a micro-factory! For the time being I am buying the filament wholesale and reselling it without taking a margin. I do not want to get rich at the expense of my community but spread technologies as much as I can.
In a way, from your room, you are organizing a real business?
Micro P Lab is more than a hobby for me. I will finish my studies in 2018 but I don’t want to wait. I offer services to students of the school to help them realize their projects. There have been many requests for containers with a nice finish. This income allows me to invest in more equipment. I also give trainings because anyone can buy a car but not everyone is necessarily a good driver.
In truth I am really lacking time: I even employ an art student for modeling because I want to concentrate on my own maker projects. I have just obtained premises in Accra (the capital of Ghana, editor’s note) where I intend to set up a lab and a store that will present useful projects, prototypes that meet our needs. And yes, I will soon have to give back my student room (laughs)…
Your next challenge?
For my last year of studies, I am focusing my diploma project on the subject of artificial intelligence. For the moment, with a friend we realized an autonomous lawnmower prototype, but I want to go further. See you in June!
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