Is 3D printing the key to Africa’s dire manufacturing sector?

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3D Africa

It’s not just a gimmick you often see on Kickstarter. 3D printing technologies have the ability to provide local communities with the access to facilities they need to produce and market their own products. It could enable the much-needed manufacturing industry to be personalised as well as democratised. What entrepreneurial opportunities could this “over-hyped gimmick” create for developing countries?

Imagine a doctor from the DRC who can make a prosthesis with materials found in his backyard. What if an engineer could design the newest African tablet or smartphone with metals found at a neighbouring mine? From shoes to toilets , from guns to houses, or even vuvuzelas — they could all be designed, printed and sold by Africans to Africans and markets beyond.

Access to the internet and the increasing ease of communication initiated by the exceptional surge in cell phone usage should not be seen as a token to Africa’s success, but rather an indication of how Africa is adapting to newer technologies. Out of this so-called “leapfrog revolution,” Africa managed to skip landlines and went straight to cellphones. In turn, it opened up a whole new world where information is at the majority’s fingertips. This, among other things, managed to stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation. Exceptional solutions for common issues. One of those common issues is the lack of industrialisation or, more specifically, the lack of local manufacturing. This is aggressively but rightfully emphasised by Rick Rowden in his article The Myth of Africa’s Rise published by Foreign Policy.

As the penetration of mobile technology increases and internet access improves information in Africa, could 3D printing technology revolutionise manufacturing throughout the continent? Could Africa Leapfrog the industrial revolution?

As mentioned by CP Africa, the US Obama Administration has proposed a US$1-billion investment to “create a network of 15 manufacturing innovation institutes across the country.” Singaporean government also put aside US$400-million as investment in its Future of Manufacturing budget for 3D printing and robotics.

Luckily for Africa, the disruption 3D-printing might bring to the world, would be easier implemented in places such as Africa where the manufacturing industry still hasn’t fully matured. Put simply, the traditional manufacturing industry wouldn’t be disrupted because there isn’t one. African economies aren’t built on industrialisation, they are built on its natural resources. Whether those resources are traded internationally or locally — there are a lot of them and they drive the success of African GDPs in the last decade.

As it stands, natural resources are being milked by the hungry industrial nations — most notably China and India. Together though, these trade-partners do offer investments in infrastructure and the major industry sectors. These sectors though, are often monopolised by government entities or massive corporations that could stagnate growth because of lack of competitive advantage or are simply corrupted and too authoritative. They’re known as the so-called “fat cats.”

Service delivery should be brought to the ground level in order to stimulate entrepreneurship Prof. Neo Kok Beng, Chairman & Co-founder of Pirate3D mentions that he wants to “democratise innovation, foster creativity, and facilitate entrepreneurship in the local communities.” Upon reaching its successful funding goal of US$500 000 on Kickstarter, the 3D printer designing company, Pirate3D, is donating “10 units of The Buccaneer 3D printer and [will] conduct training in 3D technologies, design and apps development to selected African institutions.” A simple charitable gesture at that but one that’s headed in the right direction.

In a recent blog post the company says that it wants to “bring the potential and power of 3D printing to the youth in Africa and provide them with the latest tools for innovation and creativity.” This is part of the company’s corporate social responsibility programme in partnership with Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard University. Juma says that “youths should be given the opportunities to appreciate emerging technologies such as 3D technologies and apply their creativity to develop innovative products.”

This may seem a bit far-fetched, yes, but just imagine the gap African entrepreneurs could fill if they could manage to successfully replace the middleman — you know, the guy making all those things that says “made in China.” This massive trade relationship between what is mostly an exchange of raw minerals and manufactured goods is worth US$166-billion. Instead of outsourcing its manufacturing industry (capital and labour), Africa should try to keep those billions running the local economy and sift through. Having said that, it should also be noted that there are many who celebrate China’s influence in Africa. However, other options should be explored and maybe even experimented with.

Existing examples of entrepreneurs using this technology to their advantage includes Just 3D Printing, an Indian-based project that aims to provide a solution to the pollution of plastic and inefficient recycling thereof. This is done by providing a system which creates jobs as well as “specially designed machines” that can be used to transform plastic into a filament used in 3D printers. Just 3D Printing is part of a host of competitors that featured in the 3D4D Challenge — a competition that aims to stimulate and reward 3D printing solutions for the developing world.

Other 3D4D competitors include, the challenge winner, WOOF, which is also a recycling project for 3D printers. More interesting innovations in this field include an easy-to-manufacture and assemble robotic greenhouse that could help produce food.

Many 3D-printed innovations are opensource. Meaning that they are open ideas that could be built upon. This could mean that a concept spawned in the Sweden or Japan could be implemented and modified in an Ethiopian village. In Togo, the W. Afate 3D printer has already started to spark conversation about the West African’s innovative ambitions.

Hopefully, these concepts could be successfully funneled to and implemented in Africa.

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