Rob Katz

Stop Talking, Start Making: Maker Faire Africa

“I’m going to a conference this week…” This phrase generally fails to inspire, especially after you’ve been to a few keynote-panel-keynote-lunch-panel-panel-reception type events. There are exceptions – TED and Pop!Tech both stand out in this regard – but the average conference is usually valued more for the off-hours networking than the content itself.

For the base of the pyramid sector, the trend of boring conferences is beginning to reverse itself, albeit slowly. First we had the Social Capital Markets conference in 2008, which featured, on its third day, an “unconference” format – where participants planned and hosted panels of their own choosing – that was universally well-received. Earlier this month, the Cornell Global Forum pushed boundaries by asking delegates not to sit in long plenary or panel sessions but rather to break into deep-dive working groups. Both formats value active participation and break down the speaker/participant glass ceiling – all in service of getting something done (beyond talking, of course).

In this vein, I am really excited to learn about a truly innovative “non-conference” being planned by a group including NextBillion allies Emeka Okafor, Erik Hersman and Nii Simmonds. Their Maker Faire Africa event, which will be held in Ghana this August, is no-talk, all-action. The 3-day event will bring together roboticists, hobbyists, blacksmiths – MAKERS – to jam collectively on home-grown solutions to local problems. In Emeka’s own words, “we want to spark an interest in fabrication – make it sexy, if you will.”

As if Emeka, Erik and Nii weren’t heavyweights enough, the Maker Faire Africa guys are working with the grandmaster of local, appropriate technology – Amy Smith (another NextBillion ally). Amy’s International Development Design Summit will be taking place in Ghana this August, which will allow her group to interface with the Maker Faire.

Bringing home the spirit of this non-conference, Maker Faire Africa is not a ticketed event with flashy speakers that fly in and out the same day. In fact, it couldn’t be further from what we think of as a conference – it’s free, it’s open, and you’re encouraged to bring your prototypes so that everyone can tinker along with you.

We’ll be sure to report back on Maker Faire Africa as the event gets closer, but the idea of it is incredibly encouraging. Yes, talk – discussion, research, writing, etc. – is important. But time and again, we leave conferences without a tangible call to action. I applaud the Maker Faire Africa team for pushing the boundaries of what a conference is all about, and keeping the focus on putting ideas into action.