This is the twenty-first post of a series of profiles on GOSH community members who were featured in the GOSH Community Events Framework. You can access the framework, along with this profile in its original format, on the GOSH website at https://openhardware.science/gosh-community-events-framework/.
Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou is a researcher in information and communication, with a focus on the maker movement and biohacking in the African context.
With a background in biochemistry, he promotes Do It Yourself Biology to democratise biotechnology in Africa. He was the president of the Association for the Promotion of Open Science in Haiti and Africa (APSOHA). He organised the conference “Biohacking in the medical field: perspectives for developing countries”, in Yaoundé, Cameroon, in 2017. He founded a Community Biology Lab in Cameroon, the Mboalab, which is part of the Bioeconomy Lab. He co-founded the Africa Open Science & Hardware network, and is in charge of the African Institute of Open Science and Hardware launched by the AfricaOSH community.
As part of the Open and Collaborative Science for Development Network (OCSDNET), in 2016 he knew about the first GOSH meeting and contributed to the GOSH Manifesto online. The next year, he attended the second gathering in Santiago (Chile). “There I met Jorge Appiah, from Ghana”, he remembers. “We found that a gathering for open science hardware could be a very good opportunity for Africa , but it was very important to contextualise it according to our own vision (as Africans). Then, we decided to launch the Africa summit in order for Africans and people working in Africa to have a conversation around open science, and the risks and opportunities for our continent, to adopt it”. The first Africa OSH Summit took place in Kumasi, Ghana, in April 2018. The second one was one year later in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.
Democratising the programme
“The uniqueness of the GOSH community is the format of the events: not a very long talk or presentation, and then all the sessions are interactive. People are able to do a lot of hands-on activities, which is very important for makers”, says Thomas. “You really feel like a family, so you are always involved in many things, doing stuff, designing the event. The programme is not fixed at all, it’s designed day after day by the participants, so it’s a way to democratise it. When we launched the call for applications, we designed our form in such a way that each applicant was able to tell which kind of activities they wanted to do during the Summit”.
Participants: quality over quantity
“People joining the event are really open to helping others”, highlights Thomas. “We received a lot of applications and we had to select, because we couldn’t fund the travel for all, as flying inside Africa is very expensive. We received some funding from the main GOSH, from OpenAir (Open African Innovation Research) and some international organisations, but it was not enough to cover all the expenses, so we worked collaboratively to choose some people. Marc Dusseiller advised me then that the greatness of the event doesn’t come from the number of participants, but from their quality. We were about 60 in Ghana.”
“We looked for people that could have a big impact in our continent. So we verified all the information about the applicants, to avoid bringing someone who was not really involved, or who didn’t share the ideas of social innovation or open science”, says Thomas. “If you’re applying to come to an event with a solution without wanting to share it, just to sell it, we cannot accept you. Sharing the design and the code, and helping others, is one of our core values.”
“For us, being African is a specific way to be, it doesn’t matter with your geographical position, your nationality, or the color of your skin”, states Thomas. “That way to be is mostly embedded in the ubuntu philosophy, with community as a key component: the idea that you cannot live without the others. So if someone has these values, the idea of community, the idea of looking for justice and equity, I’m sure that you will meet the criteria of Africa OSH. The idea of community is universal, but for someone who is not born in Africa it’s important to have an idea of our context, in order to better understand our needs.”
“We had a steering committee and a big team of volunteers to organise Africa OSH, and also a local committee from the host country. We used to share the documentation on how the event should look like in a shared folder, so everybody could add input”, explains Thomas. “During the event, we implemented the housekeeping rules, a kind of a code of conduct to avoid issues related to ethics. We don’t call it ‘code of conduct’ because sometimes a lot of rules can limit the interaction during hands-on activities, and people could not feel free to talk to each other. In Africa, where people are usually warmful and really like to talk and laugh, it would be difficult to implement a strict code of conduct.”
Time and space
“I think three days is a short time”, says Thomas. “Some makers need two or three weeks to install the equipment they need, and if you want to acquire some skill, it can take you one week working every day. So it’s very difficult to handle it in just three days when you have a lot of activities to do”. He adds: “Having activities in nature is very important also, being able to move from the venue to somewhere where you can have some experiments in real life. In Ghana we didn’t prepare this, but Andrew [Quitmeyer] wanted to run a workshop in a natural garden, so we moved to this place and we spent all day there. It was very interesting”.
Thomas sums up by calling attention to political and financial barriers: “GOSH participants from Africa cannot really attend the events when they take place out of Africa, due to visa issues. We are missing a lot of events because they are taking place in western countries. So if we want a diverse community, it’s very important to take care of such realities. That is why I’m calling for a future global GOSH to take place in Africa.”