“That person in Africa building his own chopper is someone who can make things happen, who is willing to take risks,” says Robert Weiss, President of the X Prize Foundation, which creates global competitions with multi-million dollar prizes to fuel innovation. Weiss says he would like to encourage greater participation from amateurs based in developing world countries in future X Prize challenges.
Okafor, however, is not convinced this approach will help. “One of the reasons prizes work in the US and elsewhere is because you already have the basics in place – infrastructure, spaces, labs, etc,” he says. “When you don’t have those basics, even for someone who may want to participate in a prize project, there are a lot of limitations.”
He sees more potential in the establishment of creative community workshops such as the hundreds of “Maker Spaces”, “hackerspaces” and “fab labs” that have sprung up around the world. These open spaces offer access to equipment such as laser cutters and 3D printers, as well as computing facilities and advanced design software. Individuals can realise their ideas, as well as making links so they can collaborate in a supportive environment.
Such spaces do exist in South Africa, Egypt, Togo, Ghana, Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, but Okafor would like to see a great many more. He and others believe that the ultimate success or failure of projects undertaken by the likes of Mwangi, Muturi, Abdullahi and the Somaliland trio is less important than what they learn along the way, and where that takes them and their societies in future.
“We shouldn’t overlook or underestimate what these folks are doing,” Okafor says. “Whether they fly or not is not really important. These individuals have an interest in this form of transport. Can we imagine what they would be able to do if they had enabling environments?”