The small West African nation of Togo is one of the last places you’d expect to find a maker space–a workshop where inventors and tinkerers can work on new projects to their heart’s content. But inside the capital city of Lome, there’s a maker space. Woelab bills itself as “Africa’s first space for democratic technology” and it’s home to Kodjo Afate Gnikou. Afate’s latest invention was recently unveiled, and it’s amazing: A 3-D printer made from cheap discarded electronics of the kind found all over the world.
Using crowdfunding from Ulule (French-language link), Afate built a workable 3-D printer using less than $100 in parts. Ulule investors provided him with a modest $4,000 to develop the low-cost fabricator, and a functional prototype was completed. In his crowdfunding page, Afate compares the potential impact of 3-D printing on society to that of the steam engine in the 19th century.
“My dream is to give young people hope and to show that Africa, too, has its place on the global market when it comes to technology. We are able to create things. Why is Africa always lagging behind when it comes to technology?” the inventor asked Euronews.
Woelab’s YouTube page includes numerous examples of the printer in action. Although it is still only a prototype, it has successfully gone through extrusion tests and is functional.
Afate’s 3-D printer, called the W.Afate (The W is for Woelab), is a home-brewed replica of the Prusal Mendel, a popular printer in the United States and Europe. Only, instead of using parts purchased in stores, the W.Afate can be constructed from discarded electronic waste. His $100 3-D printer integrates leftover parts gathered from old computers, printers, and scanners found in local dumping places. A few new parts such as motors had to be purchased, but the vast majority of the 3-D printer was built using repurposed local materials. Much of the W.Afate’s core is based around reused rails and belts from old scanners.
The next step for the W.Afate is participation in NASA‘s International Space Apps Challenge, a competition for technology designed to get mankind to Mars. Afate’s entry is part of a mixed Togolese-French team that is offering proof-of-concept proposals for developing custom-fabricated mechanical equipment parts. In his proposal, Afate writes that his printer model can allow 3-D printers to be created in any environment using already-existing equipment, and that “rather than send its computing waste to the poor countries, why the West would not send them on Mars?”
Africa has a massive electronic waste problem; in promotional materials, Afate pointed out the massive Agbogbloshie toxic electronic waste dump in nearby Ghana. Hundreds of tons of discarded computers and industrial equipment end up at Agbogbloshie each month, with usable spare parts and equipment mixed in with poisonous waste.