3D: Printing Africa’s Development

By Hailemichael Teshome Demissie, PhD, Senior Research Fellow, African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS)

A common perception about emerging technologies in the context of developing countries can be captured by the ‘sour grapes’ argument – that such technologies are beneficial but unaffordable – a thinking represented in Aesop’s fable of the hungry fox who cannot jump high enough to reach the hanging grapes and has to give itself the pretext that they are probably sour.

Some in developing countries often resort to the same reasoning that emerging technologies though revolutionary and beneficial as they may be are unaffordable for them and have to wait for years before they can adopt them. This line of thinking needs to be challenged as the reality suggests otherwise.

The adoption lag of technologies has drastically shrunk in recent times. It was once the case that technologies were adopted 45 years after their invention. This has come down to 3-4 years with recent technologies.

The world wide release of technologies, as witnessed during the series of launches of Samsung and Apple products, is indicative of the speed at which technologies diffuse around the globe. This is true of 3D printers that are being released more and more as consumer products in ways similar to the release of Samsung or Apple phones. It is the slow release of 3D printing technology that we are experiencing in Africa even though access to the latest version of 3D printers on the global market is open to Africa in the same way it is open to Europe or

America. The story of its slow but audacious adoption is, however, interesting by itself. The world’s first 3D printer to be made out of recycled e-waste was made in Africa by an African from the unlikeliest of places. What is more, this work won a NASA prize.

Kodjo Afate Gnikou from Lome, Togo built the printer from parts he sourced from the scrapyard in Lome. His award winning project was a hit on the web and the global media - an event that threw the spotlight on African ingenuity and the little known nation of Togo. With his work and in his statements, Afate confronted and challenged the misconception about Africa being always the technologically laggard continent.

Afate’s goal in building his 3D printer goes beyond Africa and the planet. He is aiming higher and he wants to make a 3D printer that will build houses and other structures on Mars. With the plan to send humans to Mars underway, his proposition is far from wishful thinking and it was acknowledged with the NASA prize he won. There is now a 3D printer in space and products bearing the ‘Made in Space’ label are already there. The staggering cost of shipping materials to space that currently stands at $20,000 per kilo simply kills off any idea about building a colony in space with materials transported from earth. It is innovative ideas like Afate’s that sustain the idea of a space colony and the various projects designed around it.

In a survey of a 1000 respondents from industry and academia, 3D printing technology came out as ‘the most disruptive technology’ in the next couple of years.


3D printing technology is currently in use in a wide range of activities: From printed prosthetics for war amputees in South Sudan to preserving historical heritage with 3D scanning and printing replicas in Kenya and Nigeria, from 3D printing parts for Airbus planes in South Africa to printing villas in Egypt, the technology is making strides in Africa.

However, it is still a far cry from the full utilisation of available capability in 3D printing technology let alone its adoption and mainstreaming in manufacturing. The examples of applications mentioned above are no more than indicators that the technology is here with us and readily accessible.

They are not meant to show that Africa is on the right track towards harnessing the potential benefits of the technology. Shifting gear and accelerating forward is what Africa needs if it is to avoid the cost of being left behind.

The disruptive power of 3D printing technology is perhaps the least contested issue. In a survey of a 1000 respondents from industry and academia, it came out as ‘the most disruptive technology’ in the next couple of years. Reports prepared by global firms like PwC, E&Y, KPMG and Deloitte have come up with a confirmation of the extraordinary disruptive potential of 3D printing. The report by E&Y regarding the disruptive impact of 3D Printing on government tax revenue is remarkable for its emphasis on the timeline of the development of 3D printing technology. In a report inelegantly yet informatively titled as 3D Printing Taxation Issues and Impacts: Technology is Turning the World Upside Down for Manufacturing and Distribution, E&Y emphatically stress that now is the time to address 3D printing. They advise that ‘now’ may well be the time to begin imagining a world upside down.’

They point out that there may not be room for postponing the significant strategic and business process planning decisions for later. Their argument applies to companies and governments alike. Those decisions on how to manage the world that is turning upside down by 3D Printing have to be made now; as E&Y warn, ‘it won’t be easy to turn it right side up again’.

This special issue of the African Technopolitan is intended to convey the sense of urgency with which 3D Printing has to be approached in Africa. The contributors share a similar sense of urgency and take their own perspectives on how Africa should be best placed to harness the technology for its sustainable economic and social development. Highlighting the opportunities that 3D Printing offers in manufacturing, medicine and other fields, Dr Bitange Ndemo critiques the abiding anti-technological pessimism that 3D printing might remove jobs and put livelihoods at risk. He draws on the marvellous job young entrepreneurs in Nairobi are doing.

In the article dealing with the need for political leadership, Dr Cosmas Ochieng and Dr. Hailemichael Teshome Demissie discuss the precedent that President Barack Obama has set for other world leaders in terms of the top-down approach in supporting the development of 3D Printing technology for economic development. Prof Henry Thairu takes aim at the benefits that 3D Printing offers in the education system and the need to adopt the technology as a pedagogical tool at all levels. Prof Berhanu Abegaz and Dr Hailemichael Teshome Demissie examine the baffling intellectual property issues of 3D Printing taking a quick look back at how Africa has been negatively impacted by the global IP regime in relation to antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS and the looting of its genetic resources through biopiracy. Dr Thomas Woodson looks at 3D Printing in light of the concept of ‘inclusive innovation’ analysing the various stages where opportunities arise to make the technology inclusive.

The contribution by Dr Carmelo De Maria, Licia Di Pietro and Arti Ahluwalia takes on the issue of inclusive innovation approaching it from the discourse on open innovations in biomedical engineering.

The authors argue for the extension of the software Open Source model to hardware - an idea whose time has come with the advent of 3D Printing. Moses Gichanga, an entrepreneur and innovator in the development of drones, shares his project on 3D Printed Drones - a case of the increasing trend of technological convergence and the critical role of 3D Printing in this convergence.

Melissa Menke profiles the first Maker Space in Tanzania that has the vision of becoming Africa’s leading maker space and transforming African society. The articles by Moses Gichanga and Melissa Menke dispel doubts that the technology has yet to land in Africa. They remind us that a lot is happening in Africa around 3D Printing technology. Nurturing and sustaining these activities is a responsibility that has yet to be allocated to a higher number of stakeholders.

The African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) and Kenyatta University (KU) have assumed this responsibility and have entered into a partnership to establish a pan- African Centre for Excellence on 3D Printing. The contribution on the Centre introduces the proposed ACTS - KU African Centre for Excellence on 3D Printing with the backdrop of a review of the ‘Centre of Excellence’ model and the rise and proliferation of 3D Printing Centres of Excellence around the globe. The last contribution in this edition is a reprint of a widely received article published by the Scidev.net website and provides some policy recommendations for African countries to enable them accelerate the adoption and development of 3D printing. We hope readers will be stimulated to engage the technology in their own respective ways to deploy it for sustainable economic, social and environmental impacts in Africa.