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Makerspaces in North Africa: A solution for unemployment and the informal sector?

The global maker movement is on the rise across the globe, and it has subsequently mirrored in North Africa. The number of makerspaces in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco Ð though still sparse Ð has been remarkably growing in recent years, particularly following the so-called Arab spring in 2011.

In their working paper, professor of economics at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and founding director of Access to Knowledge for Development (A2K4D) Nagla Rizk and senior researcher at A2K4D Nagham El Houssamy look at the makerspaces in Egypt, along with Morocco and Tunisia, and how they help ease access to technology, bridging the gap between the stakeholders in the formal economy with individuals who do not have sufficient access to technologies. They find that makerspaces should be a driver of local solutions for socioeconomic and political challenges in Egypt.

What are makerspaces?

Makerspaces are physical spaces with tools where individuals with different backgrounds can design, prototype and create manufacturer work. These makerspaces provide access to tools and equipment that, otherwise, would not be easily available. They mainly target young makers, students and potential entrepreneurs, providing them with access to sophisticated technologies and means of production at low costs. The maker movement is distinguished primarily by its shared creative process, allowing others to improve and build upon innovations.

These spaces also connect young entrepreneurs and makers with key players and stakeholders in the formal market, be it the public sector, private sector or universities. Following 2011, millions of individuals have been struggling in order to find decent jobs and accordingly, started to resort to the informal economy.

Generally, makerspaces have been on the rise in developing countries in order to address local problems in innovative ways at low costs.

Makerspaces in developing countries

In developing countries, makerspaces have the opportunity to benefit from open source appropriate technology (OSAT), which encourages innovation by using mostly open designs and blueprints. This allows technology to be adapted to meet local developmental needs.

Though the number of makerspaces in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco is still nascent, there is an increase in the number of makerspaces opening up in different cities across the three countries The majority of them are community-based and function separately from educational institutions.

El Houssamy and Rizk carried out both desk research and fieldwork in order to explore the dynamics within makerspaces in the three countries. Here, we look specifically at Egypt.

Findings from Egypt

In their findings, El Houssamy and Rizk found that local makerspaces could be usefully broken down into three categories: community-based, university-based and private sector-run makerspaces. In Egypt, they are mainly concentrated in Cairo; however, others can be found in Alexandria and governorates. Besides these makerspaces, there are other actors that are involved in gathering makers on a local level, including universities, private and public stakeholders.

In Egypt, makerspaces are rather challenged with licensing and registration when they are not hosted by a licensed entity, such as universities for instance.

El Houssamy and Rizk sought to understand how the makerspaces acted as conduits of different types of innovation, learning and skills. Due to the unripe experience of the makerspaces in Egypt and the countries studied, problems to which solutions were sought in makerspaces covered a wide range Ð everything from wanting a cheaper version of fidget-spinners to creating artificial limbs.

Additionally, both formal and informal learning in the makerspaces is voluntary. Even amongst the structured learning that takes place, for example in the form of workshops or training sessions, individuals join voluntarily to gain knowledge. The structured and unstructured learning undeniably leads to skills development, according to the paper.

In their final findings, two main views were presented by the researchers regarding how to better account for and document the innovation that takes place at makerspaces. The first view, held by the majority of the interviewees in the working paper, was that an online platform can serve, and does serve in some instances, as a way of documenting innovation at makerspaces.

The second main view that emerged from interview responses regarding how to better account for and document the creative outputs of makers showed that Egyptians referred to event data and statistics as a possible way to document the innovations taking place in makerspaces.

In conclusion, El Houssamy and Rizk believe that makerspaces should not be viewed as an autonomous solution to the unemployment problem in North Africa, but rather should be capitalized on as local solutions to the many socioeconomic and political challenges currently being faced in these countries.

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Toqa Ezzidin is a junior writer at Business Forward. She has been a reporter at Egyptian Streets and Daily News Egypt, and worked as a freelance writer for economic news portal Decypha and Arab World-focused outlet Your Middle East. A graduate of Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass Communication Ð English Section, Toqa was also a research assistant at Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), an intern at Mada Masr and participated in several journalism study tours and forums.