I am Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou from Cameroon. My background is in biochemistry and used to be a biology teacher for secondary school. Currently I am a researcher in the field of Open science with a focus on the maker movement and biohacking in the African context. I am also the President of the Association for the Promotion of Open Science in Haiti and Africa (APSOHA).
The maker movement and biohacking interest me deeply, due to their potential to overcome most of challenges the African Health system faces (e.g. many hospitals lack the basic materials, like microscopes). The possibility to modify hardware (e.g. connect a solar panel to a PCR machine and so on) is an advantage.
In order to promote this potential, I have organised this conference : “Biohacking in the medical field: perspectives for developing countries”, Yaoundé, Cameroon, Mai 2017
Even if the potential benefits are high, the maker movement and biohacking are subjects of critics, since : practices are very Western oriented, local knowledge is not acknowledged (it’s classified as superstition or culture) and values are often not put into practice as they should. My paper entitled “Benefit and the hidden face of the maker movement: Thoughts on its appropriation in African context” was written from the critic perspective.
In Africa, the maker movement and biohacking is facing many difficulties: 1) the vision differs fundamentally from the usual makers/biohackers. When I ask Western biohackers “why do you make this?”, it’s usually just for fun, like a hobby. In Africa, it is not the same, geeks are hacking to solve a problem, and to help people. 2) the machines that are usually made, are not prototyped in an African context. Although there are exceptions, often they are not useable. Therefore I promote biohacking in Africa in collaboration with electrotechnicians etc., so things can be tested and used. 3) The basic electronic components which are not easily affordable and available in Africa. Even the raspberry pi and Arduino are not easy to get; you have to order it from China. 4) The capitalistic system is another hurdle, because even if the prototype is good, there is standards defined by the WHO so that prototypes or materials to be used in hospitals, should fit with a standard. These standards are defined by the big companies. You cannot, as a biohacker, fight the establishment. They define the standard. This critique is addressed to the system managing health: it does not let people do it themselves. 5) Biohacking is not completely new to Africa, but it remains not supported by African Governments. People behind the project suffered a lot eg. The geek who made a cardiopad, was supported only when the state saw that media everywhere in the world, talk about this cardiopad invention (CNN, BBC, …).
However, some strategies and support can help to overcome these difficulties: 1) Government support, by the implementation of national policies on Open science. This is our biggest obstacle, not money or other things. 2) International organisations can be used as a vehicle of Open science. Because there is a kind of epistemic and colonial alienation which makes that our leaders trust in International Organization (because of money) and they are very open to discuss with white people. The reality is all things coming from the white people, West and NGO’s are ‘good’, while they don’t listen to their own people. 3) Due to these realities, most of the geeks engaged in biohacking are successful because they are connected with Western geeks and lab.
There are not many fablabs, makerspaces or ‘protofablabs’ in Africa. Some of them are promoted by personal efforts, association or companies. The Woelab in Togo is well known and has success. In Cameroon there is the fablab Ongola Lab, supported by Orange and Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie. But communities seem not deeply involved due to their perception of these spaces. That is why the science shop model has a lot of potential to change the African conception of fablab, rather than replicate the western model.
In my community, I conducted some project to give better life to people by hearing their needs and build solutions together. Like safe water to drink as I did in my village several years ago. I am not supported even by the state or by the rural council. If the pump is broken or whatever, I pay money to keep it going. I cannot ask villagers for money because they don’t have it.
I did other projects as well. Together with my wife, a teacher in nutrition, we did some research to reduce children malnutrition in rural zone; since many mothers cannot afford the right meals. We have created a formula using local ingredients, to help them give a balanced diet to their baby. All the work is freely accessible here (https://www.zenodo.org/record/57037/export/xm#.WcauGoxSxPY) and it’s being used in our direct environment. We can help for a local problem, for 10 or 20 children, but cannot do it for the whole village. For a larger impact, it needs to be spread. We don’t get the support we need to do this.
A powerful weapon is education. Imagine: introduce biohacking in the curriculum. What would happen after 10 years, 20 years? How could we do this, since our governments seems inactive? For me the first thing is to hack textbooks by writing ourselves. I did it through this platform : http://www.fabrel.org/.
Without national and/or international support, I feel tired and not sure that I will continue.
I’d love to come to the OpenVillage Festival in October because I want to share my experience with others, continue to build a strong African community of biohacking, shape strategies for the use of Open science in healthcare and mostly, learn from others…