Its propellers are powered by an engine that once milled animal feed. Aluminium bars, bolts and plastic sheeting bought from a local shop and held together with cheap gum make up the frame. A large crowd applauds enthusiastically as young farmhand Onesmus Mwangi publically unveils the 25-kilogramme (55-lb) helicopter he has built from salvaged scrap in his backyard in the village of Magomano, Kenya. And for good reason.
Mwangi, 20, dropped out of school at the age of 12 and has no formal technical training. His labour of love took up every spare waking moment outside his farm job for over seven months, not to mention his savings of 57,000 Kenyan Shillings ($650) – about a year-and-a-half’s salary for him.
He is, of course, not the first person to build a helicopter. We can’t even be sure his machine actually flies. The engine works and he claims it has flown a few feet, although this cannot be confirmed. Regardless, his raw talent and determination have attracted local, national and even international recognition.
In recent years the media has highlighted a series of similarly inspiring achievements by other African amateur aviation enthusiasts, whose flying machines have been created with scant resources and little training. Some have achieved lift-off, others haven’t. Their stories are different, and yet linked by parallels in the barriers they have faced and overcome, and their motivations for doing so.
For at least as long ago as the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight in 1903, novice tinkerers and expert engineers have engaged in innovative aviation projects, varying in size and scale. Canadian engineer Paul Moller, for example, has put a good part of the last 40 years and at least $100 million into developing the Moller Skycar 400, an affordable personal aircraft that takes off and lands vertically. Then there is Toronto-based Jay Godsall, who is developing an aeroplane-airship hybrid with a helium-filled chamber and solar cells designed to get into remote locations for disaster relief, exploration and research.
Aeronautical innovators in the developing world have fewer resources, but they have similar motivations, says Emeka Okafor, curator of Maker Faire Africa, an annual pan-African event that showcases ingenuity and innovation.
“In any society, there’s always a subset of individuals with an interest in tinkering, fabricating, mimicking, inventing,” says Okafor. “At the very fundamental level, what drives them is curiosity. On top of that, it’s problem solving, or addressing gaps they see in society.”
Social recognition and material rewards matter too. “I built the helicopter to showcase my talent, hoping that people would invest in me and give me an opportunity to build bigger and better things,” says Mwangi.
The rise of the internet and social media in particular has brought greater attention to such efforts over the last decade. Gabriel Nderitu Muturi, another Kenyan, spent three years building a homemade two-seater aircraft running on a 40-litre Toyota engine. In 2010 he was forced to give up on this model, which failed to get off the ground due to “many troubles with weight and engine power”, as he wrote in a report on his efforts. Last year he designed and built a lighter single-seater, and is currently planning remote-controlled tests.
Then there is the Somaliland trio Mohamed Abdi Barkadle, Saed Abdi Jide and Abdi Farah Lidan, who, in 2010, built a helicopter from an old van engine and scrap metal with no financial support, with the aim of using it to fight fires. It is unclear whether their chopper ever made it off the ground. Jide cites a “lack of money and time” as the main challenges.