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From fu fu to solar power, Fab Labs let people make what they need

Page history last edited by Rosemary 12 years, 2 months ago

From fu-fu to solar power, Fab Labs let ordinary people make what they need

A group of innovative facilities called Fab Labs (short for Fabrication Laboratory) in Ghana, India, Kenya, South Africa and Costa Rica are applying cutting-edge technology to address peoples’ everyday needs. Like the futuristic “replicator” in Star Trek, Fab Labs allow people to design and produce what they need there and then.

Originally an idea from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms, which sponsors nine of the labs, Fab Labs let people use digital technology to build physical objects, from eyeglass frames to toys and computer parts. Fab Labs empower local invention by turning education, problem-solving and job creation into a creative process.

Started by Professor Neil Gershenfeld, Fab Labs use US$20,000 worth of computers, open source design software, laser cutters, milling machines and soldering irons, letting people build things they need, including tools, replacement parts and essential products unavailable in the local market. With minimal training, children and adults are designing and making their own toys, jewellery and even computer circuit boards.

In Ghana, the Takoradi Technical Institute hosts a Fab Lab, allowing a wide variety of people to use the “replicator” – from local street children to tribal chiefs – to make a wide range of products. The Ghana lab has several projects on the go, including antennae and radios for wireless internet networks and solar-powered machinery for cooking, cooling and cutting. The younger the users, the faster the skills are picked up.

John Silvester Boafo, principal at the Takoradi Technical Institute, is proud of what he calls a fu-fu pounder. “In a Ghanaian home, the main dish is fu-fu,” he told the BBC. “Fu-fu is made of plaintain and cassava, which are cooked. After they are cooked, they are put into a mortar and pounded by hand. People go through hard labour just to get a meal to eat. So, we thought we could fabricate this machine to alleviate the hard labour they use in pounding.” They are also working on portable hand-held chargeable solar panels for televisions and refrigerators.

In Pabal, in the western part of Maharashtra, India, a Fab Lab was established at the Vigyan Ashram in 2002 and is now working on developing agricultural instruments. They are also testing milk for quality and safety, and tuning diesel engines to run more efficiently, especially with bio fuels. Another lab in Bithoor in the state of Uttar Pradesh (operated with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur) is working on 3-D scanning and printing for rural artisans, such as producing wooden blocks used in Chikan embroidery.

In South Africa, officials are in the process of setting up four labs. The first is in Pretoria, home to Africa’s first “science park”. The second is in Shoshanguve, a very poor community with high unemployment. Sushil Borde, head of the government agency charged with rolling out the four labs, hopes the network of Fab Labs will enable South African entrepreneurs and engineers to test their ideas and “fast track the process of growth and development.”.

This story is adapted from Development Challenges, South-South Solutions, the September 2007 e-newsletter of the Special Unit for South-South Co-operation in UNDP.


For other stories about solar power, see:

Unique rental model brings solar power to remote Lao villages

Solar power hearing aid battery offers hope for deaf in developing world

Solar-powered boats bring education, sustainable energy to poor communities

Solar lamp replaces hazardous kerosene in Indian villages

Low tech systems improve water, sanitation in remote Afghan communities

Micro-hydro electrifies remote South American communities

Grameen Shakti, empowerment through renewable energy

Bhutan’s yak herders prefer solar power to kerosene and firewood

Recycled materials make solar cookers, save trees in Mali

Solar cooking helps to save the planet

Solar water disinfection saves lives, money in largest Kenyan slum

World’s first solar cooker village helps cut deforestation in Somalia


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