This Innovative West African Lab Is Turning E-Waste into 3D Printers and Robots
WoeLab in Togo is on a mission to promote urban renewal in the west African nation with a focus on creating sustainable technology in a local context
Lalle Nadjagou. Image: Chris Matthews
Growing up in the remote, arid terrains of Dapaong in northern Togo, Lalle Nadjagou was always fascinated by technology and design.
"In my childhood I used to try and make electronic cars and planes because I would see the airplanes in the sky and think, 'how can a person do that?'" the 22-year-old told me. "Since I was repairing radios and things, I saw how the motherboards and things functioned and it made me want to create my own projects."
Perched on a table outside the doors of WoeLab—woe is the Ewe word for "do it"—which sits in the shadow of Lomé University and flanked by a barber and local drinking spot in Togo's coastal capital, he is working on his newest electronic creation: a miniature 3D printer.
Nadjagou is part of the latest cohort at WoeLab, the first technology incubator and fabrication lab in the country, which is home to various local start-ups, designers and entrepreneurs.
The organisation, founded in 2012 by Togolese architect Sénamé Agboginou, is on a mission to promote urban renewal in the west African nation with a focus on creating sustainable technology in a local context and by utilising the local environment. WoeLab's members have identified a unique material to help achieve this: electronic waste.
Agboginou discusses WoeLab's work.
Members of the WoeLab community have invented the world's first 3D printer made almost entirely from e-waste, built computers with discarded electronics inside plastic jerry cans, and are in the process of repurposing a discarded fridge to house a work station.
"The concept for WoeLab is to make 'low' high tech," Agboginou said. "To develop very high tech projects but with what we have in our hands. Projects which are not high cost and that every person can have and projects which are adapted for our culture."
The architect has spent several years working on designing modern living spaces in rural settings inspired by traditional west African mud structures, and says he was keen to replicate the communal, environmental approach in an urban area.
"In traditional systems people work together and build together," he added. "If someone in the village has to build his house all the village come and help—it is the same thing in the hackerspace. The waste and recycled material are very helpful for this. E-waste is a very frugal material because those materials have an old life but they have the aspects you can use."
For Nadjagou, e-waste is an exciting material to use: "It is a very good thing to recycle, it grows up your spirit and your mind," he said. "For my own printer it is the same principle as the other 3D printers we know, apart from printing rubber, I want to print circuit boards."
"For this product it is a test and with this I can produce little things and if I succeed I will be able to produce other things in the future," he added.
Nadjagou, who joined WoeLab in September, is hoping his creations can follow in the footsteps of the W.Afate, the groundbreaking 3D printer WoeLab designed in 2013 by repurposing electronic waste.
After buying a Prusa 3D printer which the group put together on site, Agboginou said community members were inspired to design their own version.
"We built this 3D printer together which was brought from abroad and after this we began to think how can we build a new one based on what we have in our hands," the 36-year-old said. "One of the members said I think we can do this with e-waste and everyone laughed. But he had this genius idea."
Raising $4,000 via a crowdfunding campaign, WoeLab set to work on the 3D printer project, incorporating elements of computers, scanners and other electronics into its design, which resulted in the W.Afate printer, named after WoeLab member Kodjo Afate Gnikou.
The ingenuity of the project led to it being exhibited at various shows and recipient of several awards in 2014. Its users include local firm Africa Tracing, who deploy it to make the plastic casing for its vehicle GPS technology. It is hoped the W.Afate can have a significant social impact too. The community has launched a 3D printing education initiative which aims to put a W.Afate into schools throughout Lomé.
In a country where almost 60 percent of people live in poverty and occupations often centre around agriculture and informal economies, educational access to such new technologies could have a positive impact.
"We want to put a 3D printer in every school and cyber cafe in this one kilometre area of Lomé," Agboginou said. "We are working with 10 schools this year and teaching the young people how to draw in 3D in school and after the idea is to put the 3D printers in each one of these schools... our objective is to put them in the hands of everyone."
According to a United Nations report last year, almost 40 million metric tonnes of e-waste was generated globally in 2014, and west Africa is home to many digital dumping sites. Agbogbloshie in neighbouring Ghana is one of the most notable examples.
While the health risks and dangers of e-waste are many, UN Under Secretary General David Malone noted in a statement last year that "worldwide, e-waste constitutes a valuable 'urban mine'—a large potential reservoir of recyclable materials."
This electronic reservoir is being mined ingeniously at WoeLab. The group collects disused electronics from locations across Togo's capital including from the recycling centre Action Sociale pour Le Developpement Integral (ASDI).
ASDI's scrapyard in Lomé is piled high with computer screens, motherboards, and newly pulped plastics. It has partnerships with local groups who reuse its electronic scrap while staff also go into neighbourhoods encouraging people to recycle old electronics.
"We have many partnerships with organisations like WoeLab and they can to pick things that they need," ASDI's Francoise Adekpue said. "I think what they are doing is good. It is very important that we protect the environment, we are fighting for that issue and so letting people take the things they need can really help."
E-waste is used by many of WoeLab's 11 start-ups. An e-waste recycling service is being started by ScOPE, another plans to build a drone from e-waste while the community joined forces to built its own versions of the jerry can computers, initially designed in France, also using e-waste.
Its e-waste specialists have also set their eyes on redefining the traditional working space and even agriculture practices in the near future.
The MilaWoe project, which aims to transform a reclaimed fridge into a work station complete with computer and 3D printer, is next in the pipeline. The group says the MilaWoe will be "designed to equip cybercafes and schools, it can easily be adapted to any public place, education centre, household or enterprise."
Community members are also working on Ifan: the name given to what Agboginou describes as a "multifunctional agricultural robot" that "sows, plows and sprinkles in the fields." The e-waste project is still in its early phases, but footage of an initial model has been posted online.
WoeLab, which is seeking funding for its education initiative, offers space for free to its aspiring "makers" and also hold various hacking camps through the year. For Nadjagou, joining the community has given him an opportunity otherwise unattainable.
"WoeLab helps a lot of people in technology... it is open and free," he said. "In the house, my parents don't like what I do. If I ask for something I need for my project they didn't provide what I needed.
"But as time passes they come to understand and as I'm growing up they realise that maybe technology is my strength," he added. "Actually, they see it like it is a joke or I am playing, but tomorrow they will understand, I'm sure."
WoeLab is not alone in its e-waste philosophy. Kenyan startup E-Lab creates art from e-waste; Gladys Myunzwela, a Botswana designer, makes clothes and accessories from expired electronics; and Tanzania's Buni Hub also created a 3D printer from disposed electronics in 2015.
"E-waste right now is a material in Africa. We have to think what we can do to deal with it," Agboginou said. "Maybe we will have a big economy based on the transformation of waste… maybe e-waste will be the new gold."