Preview: Maker Faire Africa

A pedal-powered wooden car is examined at the Berlin Maker Faire.
A pedal-powered wooden car is examined at the Berlin Maker Faire.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

What happens when you put the drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali with those from Ghana and Kenya, and add resources to the mix? That's exactly the question that organizers of the first Maker Faire Africa intend to answer starting tomorrow, when inventors, venture capitalists, journalists, and curious members of the general public gather in Accra, Ghana, for a 3-day celebration of do-it-yourself innovation. The aim of the event, an offshoot of similar gatherings in the United States held over the past few years, is to identify, spur, and support local development by bringing Africa's brightest inventors and idea men and women together in a single forum.

A Maker What?

rubeThe original Maker Faire was held in April 2006 in San Mateo, California. Sponsored by MAKE Magazine and billed as the world's biggest celebration of science, engineering, and crafting, the event drew roughly 20,000 visitors. Maker Faire's popularity has grown in the years since, with MAKE sponsoring events in Austin, Texas, and Newcastle, United Kingdom, in addition to subsequent gatherings in San Mateo. "It's pinnacle geek culture that you can't find anywhere else in the world," one product designer told Wired last year. MAKE is busy preparing to host Maker Faire Rhode Island in September. One of the most popular exhibits to appear at several Maker Faires since the event's inception is the life-size, Rube Goldberg-esque mousetrap inspired by the classic board game of the same name. Another geeky favorite is the Diet Coke and Mentos-fueled Bellagio-style fountain.

Into Africa

While MAKE isn't an official sponsor of Maker Faire Africa, the editors of the magazine allowed the Maker Faire Africa organizers to use the MF name and they'll be covering the event. Maker Faire Africa was the idea of entrepreneur and TED Africa Director Emeka Okafor, who authors a blog, Timbuktu Chronicles, about innovation in Africa. "The aim is to identify, spur and support local innovation," Okafor originally wrote on Ned.com, where he launched his idea for Maker Faire Africa in 2008. "At the same time, Maker Faire Africa would seek to imbue creative types in science and technology with an appreciation of fabrication and by default manufacturing. The long-term interest here is to cultivate an endogenous manufacturing base that supplies innovative products in response to market needs."

Why Ghana? Why Now?

ghana Okafor and his fellow organizers, including AfriGadget.com founder Erik Hershman and Nii Simmonds of the blog, Nubian Cheetah, scheduled the first Maker Faire Africa to follow the International Development Design Summit, which was held in Kumasi, Ghana. Finished prototypes from the summit, which was organized by MIT and ran through Wednesday, will be presented at MFA. Okafor hopes this week's Maker Faire is the first of many in Africa.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

One of the featured presenters scheduled to speak at Maker Faire Africa is William Kamkwamba, a Malawian who, against all odds, built an electricity-generating windmill as a teenager out of primarily scrap materials. Kamkwamba was forced to drop out of school at the age of 14 because his family couldn't afford the nominal annual tuition. After reading a library book about wind energy, he constructed a windmill out of a broken bicycle, a tractor fan blade, and blue-gum trees, among other things. His prototype windmill powered four light bulbs, two radios, and mobile phones, and Kamkwamba soon built two more windmills to provide his family with electricity, a luxury only 2 percent of Malawians could afford. After news of his ingenuity spread, Kamkwamba was invited to speak at the TEDGlobal 2007 conference, where a group of investors agreed to finance his education. Kamkwamba has since authored a book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which will be released in September, and is the subject of a documentary.

Other Presenters

Among the other inventors who will attend Maker Faire Africa are Dominic Wanjihia, who invented a device called the Evapocooler to cool camels' milk for transportation in Somalia, and a pair of Kenyan students who designed a pocket-sized and pedal-powered cell phone charger that can be attached to the back wheel of a bike. Hershman, who regularly profiles similar inventions on AfriGadget.com, is attending Maker Faire Africa with the goal of getting feedback on a collaborative design effort with the Portable Light project and messenger bag-maker Timbuk2. Hershman has brought several prototypes of the FLAP (Flexible Light And Power) bag "“ a messenger bag outfitted with a solar panel connected to an LED light "“ to Ghana to determine how useful the device would be to people in Africa. You can read more about the FLAP project here.

Maker Faire Video Vault

Here are several videos from previous Maker Faires, including a successful run of the life-size mousetrap.
2009 Bay Area
2008 Austin
Life-Size Mouse Trap

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The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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Remembering Sara Little Turnbull, Whose Bra Cup Design Became the N95 Mask

Design innovator Sara Little Turnbull.
Design innovator Sara Little Turnbull.
Photo Credit: © Center for Design Institute

The coronavirus pandemic has made something of a celebrity out of the N95 mask, a particle-filtering face covering that’s long been used to protect wearers from inhaling or exhaling pathogens. (The “95” refers to the fact it can block 95 percent of airborne particles.)

Like most nondescript and pervasive products, not many people stop to think about where it came from. Now, owing to the attention placed on it as a key tool in the health care professional’s fight against coronavirus, the woman behind the mask has come to the forefront. Her name is Sara Little Turnbull, and she designed what would become the N95 based on the shape of a bra cup.

A design consultant, Turnbull was working with the 3M company in 1958 in their gift wrap and fabric division when she was exposed to Shapeen, a non-woven material made of polymers and used for decorative ribbons. Turnbull was fascinated by the molded version of Shapeen and devised the first-ever pre-made bows for gift wrap.

Turnbull didn’t stop there. She saw endless possibilities in Shapeen and assembled an audience of 3M executives to present a number of ideas she had for products—more than 100 in all—using the material. At the presentation, which she titled “Why,” she impressed 3M with the scope of Shapeen's potential. The company quickly enlisted her to work on a design for a molded bra cup.

But Turnbull had another, arguably more important notion. At the time, she was taking care of three ailing family members who were under the care of doctors. Turnbull was often in a medical setting and noticed health care workers were constantly adjusting thin masks that tied in the back. She returned to 3M with the idea of using that same molded material to make a mask that would fit more comfortably on the face.

Again, 3M saw potential in Turnbull’s idea. By 1961, they introduced a non-woven lightweight medical mask based on her concept, with elastic bands instead of strings, an aluminum nose clip, and a form-fitting "bubble" shape. (The bra patent was approved in 1962.) Though innovative, the mask couldn't block pathogens for medical use and was marketed for dust filtration instead. An improved respirator hit the market in 1972 that was suitable for other industrial purposes. As the mask’s filtration evolved, so did its usefulness. In 1995, the N95 respirator was introduced in the health care field, fulfilling Turnbull's original ambition.

Though Turnbull had been relegated to a nondescript part of 3M, she had an extensive background in design, graduating from the Parsons School of Design in 1939 and later becoming the decorating editor of House Beautiful magazine. After Turnbull wrote an article taking companies to task for not designing products suitable for the end user, she was hired by 3M. As a consultant, she also collaborated with Corning, Revlon, General Mills, and Ford, among others.

After Turnbull died in 2015, the Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute was formed, which offers information to the public on the value of design and supports the efforts of disadvantaged women's design education. Turnbull's vast archive of material is available to view by appointment. A foundation in her name also provides educational grants. The “Little,” incidentally, was in acknowledgment of her height. At 4 feet, 11 inches tall, Turnbull wasn’t terribly physically imposing. But her contributions were gigantic.

[h/t NPR]