If you’ve followed the 3D printing fever at all, you’ve likely come across stories about its possibilities for the developing world. Many in the maker community, as well as economists and doctors, rave about how 3D printing specifically, and technology in general, can help developing countries overcome their structural handicaps, like poor infrastructure and small industrial capacity. This, in turn, will accelerate their development and, more importantly, lift many of their people out of poverty. Others remain skeptical, contending that developing countries’ workforces lack the necessary skill bases and entrepreneurial spirit to truly harness the full potential of 3D printing.
Whatever the thinking behind such cynicism, it’s understandable in the context of the many misconceptions surrounding the developing world. As Davidson teaches us, through a commitment to diversity and a robust study abroad program, these misconceptions are often so perverse that they skew our perception of reality and encourage us to stereotype. Indeed, before going to study abroad in Rwanda last fall, I unconsciously ascribed a technological infancy to the “Land of a Thousand Hills” simply because it’s an African country.
My preconceived notions couldn’t have been more off the mark. The proliferation and integration of technology in Rwanda is certainly much less than what I see in the States, but ultimately the conversations Rwandans are having about possible technological solutions to the world’s issues are no different than the ones we have in Studio M. I even found a Rwandan equivalent to our space here, called K-Lab, which is a space dedicated to supporting IT entrepreneurs and encouraging them to collaborate and innovate. While more focused on encouraging entrepreneurship and business development than creative play, K-Lab, like Studio M, is ultimately a tech-friendly space filled with college kids tinkering and innovating ways in which technology can make today’s world better.
But it’s not just Rwandan college students having these conversations. All across the continent, entrepreneurs are experimenting with modern solutions to address some of their countries’ toughest problems. In Uganda, for instance, doctors are using scanners, 3D printers, and laptops to provide cheaper and better prosthetics for amputees in the the northern region. This area was the center of a vicious civil war between government forces and Joseph Kony’s LRA (yes, this Kony), which was notorious for its brutal mangling of anyone who stood in their path. In the wake of that conflict, there’s great need for prosthetics of all kinds. Thanks to 3D printing, people lacking any form of health insurance can still get workable and durable prosthetics for about $3.
The difficulty lies in scaling these measures up, especially in more rural areas where the infrastructure and funding availability are disproportionately worse than in cities. The trip from the capital city of Kampala to Gulu, a city of about 150,00 in northern Uganda, is a harrowing 10-hour, 335 kilometer journey that’s not for anyone with a weak back or an aversion to consuming at least a pound of dust. Getting consumables like plastic for 3D printing to Gulu can be more than a little trouble.
It’s important to remember these structural challenges, and to understand that they create obstacles for implementation that we rarely even have to consider, much less deal with firsthand, in more developed regions. Therefore, it’s important to be patient in setting expectations for the ways in which innovative technologies like 3D printing can help spur development and alleviate poverty. At the same time, though, there’s reason to be optimistic about the potential of these innovative solutions; my Rwandan friends, Ugandan doctors, and countless others across the developing world are no different than Western entrepreneurs in their zeal and technological savvy. The possibilities for all creative makers in the developing world are truly endless, but they must be managed within the context of their countries’ “growing pains.”
Related websites worth checking out:
- Rwanda’s Tech Ambitions
- 3D Printing Across the Continent
- Printed Prosthetics
- South Africa’s 3D Printer Company ‘RoboBeast’