“Technologie Democracy”, “low high tech”, these are the mantras of Sename Agboginou the founder of L’Africaine D’Architecture. His initiatives have one uniting goal: making groundbreaking technology accessible to the common man. With this in mind Sename founded L’Africaine d’Architecture, an architectural firm based out of Lome, Togo, with the idea of localizing the ideas of “Smart Cities” to Lome.

Smart cities have been helmed as our future utopic cities, with various major firms such as Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM, jumping on the concept to optimize cities like Boston, London, Rio de Janeiro, and Johannesburg. So far, they have focused mostly on infrastructure i.e. optimizing the use of water, or reducing traffic. However, criticism has arisen around the corporate led optimization focused around the lack of integration of the citizens that actually live there within the process.

With the dynamisms, culture, history, and traditions of African cities, there is much to be taken into consideration when making a city more efficient, while incorporating the needs of citizens. There is no doubt that with the quickly growing urban population in Africa, there is a need for cities become more efficient. However, the lifestyle of the citizens must be considered. With Sename’s commitment to Lome, he was not looking to build a shiny new city but rather gather influence from the past, and the city’s present, creating the concept of Hubcite.

Takientas in Togo

L’Africaine D’Architecture is looking to revive the West African architectural traditions through HubCite, specifically the mud based structures prevalent in countries like Mali, Chad, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon. When mud huts are spoken about, they are usually depicted as primitive structures, while in reality they are part of a rich cultural tradition practical to the climates in which they are constructed. Mud structures have existed around the world for centuries. Notable examples of grandiose structures on the continent made from mud include, Bobo Dioulasso Grand Mosque in Burkina Faso and the great Mosque of Djenne, in Mali. In Togo, mud structures are prevalent in the northern part of the country and are called Takientas. Koutammakou is a UNESCO world heritage site, which boasts several impressive takienta structures.

Given the idea of creating HubCite, was a large one, Sename commenced with Woelab, a maker space encouraging collaborative creation for anyone interested. Woelab acts as a community center that provides resources and support for people in the district, and push for their collaboration, with the idea of two heads being better than one. Sename has placed an emphasis on the creators within the space to come up with tools that utilize local materials to be built, thus embedding the spirit of recycling, and localization, in the creative process. Not enough emphasis can be placed on the importance of maker spaces on the continent, where individuals are able to come freely to invent something, that is influenced by their own experiences, and perception of the needs of their communities. Individuals like Koffi Afate Gnikou, the creator of the electronic waste 3D printer.

Wanting to provide a 3 D printer as a resource to members of the maker space, Sename looked into importing a printer to be used at Woelab. In the spirit of a makerspace though, Afate thought why don’t they just make their own printer. Collecting scraps from the growing electronic waste dumps around Lome, Afate created his very own 3D printer, naming it the W.Afate.

Beyond the African context, 3D printing or additive manufacturing stands to be a revolutionary and disruptive piece of technology. The innovation pushes the Do It Yourself ethos and puts the power of manufacturing back in the hands of the people, cutting out the middle man i.e. major manufacturing entities. We’ve seen the danger in 3d printing, with the rise of 3d printed guns in the United States, but also the new hope that it creates, by printing organs, that usually leave patients on long waiting lists. The Woelab team has organized conferences with individuals in the medical field in Africa, to get a better understanding of the implications of a tool like a 3D printer in the local health sector and beyond. The vision of the Woelab team is to supply 3D printers to cyber or internet café’s which are widely used in Lome. They will also be putting up the blueprints of the W.Afate online, to allow anyone around the world to replicate their product, using whatever scrap electronics they can find.

We are taking technology and trying to convert them to the African context, to make them meet needs that are more relevant to us

Making it one of their missions to put the power of invention into the hands of every Lome resident Sename and the Woelab team continue to build and create with the spirit of lowhightech, coming up with ways to create products for the average Togolese consumer. They are certainly an outfit to observe in their subtle but powerful venture of democratizing technology.

My Africa Is hosted a Google+ hangout on May 1st, 2013, in partnership with Google, Nasa, and Made in Space to discuss innovations in 3D printing in Africa and Beyond. You can watch the full video here.