Biomaker in Ghana: conversations from an international workshop at Kumasi Hive

This July, the Cambridge Biomaker organisers headed to Ghana to run a two-day workshop at Kumasi Hive, an entrepreneurship and innovation hub and one of the implementing arms of the Biomaker initiative. Twenty participants gathered in Kumasi for an accelerated course in programming hardware for low-cost, open-source bioinstrumentation. Half of the participants had worked with the Biomaker system before, and together with the new participants, further developed their projects by learning to program a customisable touchscreen interface for their existing hardware. The fast-paced, energetic training sessions were broken up by project presentations from the teams, talks from researchers from Cambridge and the nearby Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and some amazing Ghanian meals, of course! 

Due to a lack of expertise in practically everything related to Biomaker, I was lucky enough to get to spend most of my time interviewing the participants and getting to know the wider community of staff and collaborators working together at the buzzing Kumasi Hive. 

Cambridge Biomaker organisers Jim Haseloff, Alexandra Ting, Anne-Pia Marty and Biomaker training participants at Kumasi Hive

Cambridge Biomaker organisers Jim Haseloff, Alexandra Ting, Anne-Pia Marty and Biomaker training participants at Kumasi Hive

Anne-Pia Marty (Biomaker Africa Coordinator), Chiara Gandini (OpenBioeconomy Lab) and Alexa Walker (Engineers Without Borders, Kumasi Hive)

Anne-Pia Marty (Biomaker Africa Coordinator), Chiara Gandini (OpenBioeconomy Lab) and Alexa Walker (Engineers Without Borders, Kumasi Hive)

Chiara is a postdoctoral researcher based at the University of Cambridge. She works with The Open Bioeconomy Lab and has been traveling between Cameroon and Ghana to research developing a sustainable, open and equitable bioeconomy in Africa. She is currently in Kumasi setting up a biolab at the Hive. She is also working on a Biomaker Challenge project to develop an oxygen sensor for an open source bioreactor. I asked her about some of the differences between community access maker spaces and biolabs in Cambridge versus Ghana and Cameroon: 

In Cambridge, there is a maker space and a biomakespace but everyone is really busy doesn’t have time to do additional research in the evenings. Here, it’s the other way around- people have time and would like to work, so these spaces are really needed. The idea of building biology and maker spaces together is especially powerful because it allows people to build expensive equipment in a low-cost way. Then you have a sustainable system.

Bridget, a third year undergraduate and participant in the Biomaker training, spoke more about the need for these spaces and programs in Ghana: 

Biomaker and Kumasi Hive in general are very educative and innovative programs in place to solve unemployment rates in the country. It also provides a platform for creative students who wish they could do more than what they do in school to make their skills useful and impactful.

Harry and Isaac, technical associates at Kumasi Hive, explained further: 

Harry: It’s quite difficult in Ghana- there’s a lot of unemployment as many people are competing for limited employment opportunities. People our age have a mindset that they want to work for a large company because they pay well, but those are limited sectors and everyone is trying to compete for the same office jobs. 

So what role does Kumasi Hive, and programs like Biomaker, play in your lives?

Isaac: They’re an avenue for me to learn more. Here, you are not restricted to your comfort zone. When you come to the Hive, you find yourself doing things you normally wouldn’t do. For example, I never thought of myself doing ‘people’ work like reports and writing proposals. Once I came here, I found myself doing more of that and that’s an important skill that everyone has to pick up and I enjoy doing it now. That’s one thing I learned. 

Harry Akligoh and Isaac Atia-Abugbilla (Technical associates at Kumasi Hive)

Harry Akligoh and Isaac Atia-Abugbilla (Technical associates at Kumasi Hive)

Bridget Kornyoh (Undergraduate at KNUST studying biological sciences)

Bridget Kornyoh (Undergraduate at KNUST studying biological sciences)

As I went around chatting with participants about Biomaker, the idea of problem solving came up again and again. Though Chiara’s background is in microbiology, she has always been fascinated by the idea of citizen science:

I love the idea that there could be a space where people go and try out even simple things like making things work in their house or building up a sensor because maybe they’re worried about a water source near them. And the idea that you might have a non-science job but if you know about science, that you might be able to tackle some problem with the knowledge you have.

Michael, an undergraduate student and Biomaker participant working on a mercury and lead sensor, is doing just that. 

I have always been very conscious about the environment. The country taps a few major rivers as its source of water, sending it to treatment plants before it reaches our homes. Unfortunately there is illegal mining throughout the country, and with a background in medical laboratory, I know the effects of these heavy metals entering our water supply. Biomaker is an opportunity to do something, to monitor it.

Did you come into the training knowing you wanted to address this?

When we started, I thought it would just be training and instruction about the Biomaker-arduino system. I had no idea we would get to pick a project at the end. 

So you had an interest in this environmental issue before and Biomaker provided the tools to be able to provide a solution to it?

That’s exactly it. 

Michael Boakye Sarfo, undergraduate at KNUST in medical laboratory technology

Michael Boakye Sarfo, undergraduate at KNUST in medical laboratory technology

Ousman Saidy, Science Educator

Ousman Saidy, Science Educator

Ousman is a science educator, currently teaching biology and integrated science in a senior high school in Accra. (He left at 5am to get to Kumasi for the workshop!) Ousman has already introduced Biomaker to his students who are aged 13-16, the youngest demographic to be exposed to the initiative. I asked him what they thought of it and what his goals for them are: 

There is a lot of interest in robotics at that age. Some of them already have an affinity for physics so its encouraging for them to be able to apply their knowledge to biology.

My students are beginning to focus on problem solving. We try to let them know that yes, there are problems in Ghana but we are capable of providing solutions once we have the tools. Once I learn how to use these things, I can teach my students, and there will be more opportunities to solve more problems. My students will identify other problems and ways of thinking that I hadn’t thought of. It’s not only about myself- I’m looking to pass this knowledge on so we can achieve much more than I could on my own.

Dr Lara Allen (Director, Centre for Global Equality) and Sewnet Alemu (researcher from Bahir Dar University)

Dr Lara Allen (Director, Centre for Global Equality) and Sewnet Alemu (researcher from Bahir Dar University)

Prototyping with the arduino-XOD Biomaker system

Prototyping with the arduino-XOD Biomaker system

Lara Allen is the director of the Centre for Global Equality in Cambridge. She is working to develop a makerspace in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia and met us in Kumasi to better understand the Hive as a model space and participate in the Biomaker training in the hopes of implementing it in Ethiopia. Lara comes from an arts and social sciences background and, sitting together in the sun after lunch, we had an engaging discussion about the importance of interdisciplinary working and the transferability of Biomaker projects.

From the point of view of the makerspace in Ethiopia, Biomaker could be a really interesting way to draw people in who normally wouldn't feel like they belong in maker spaces. When you’re building solutions to real, on-the-ground issues, you need social scientists to be part of the team, but getting them into the room is hard. For development iTeams in Cambridge, we’ve had people from history and philosophy and they totally change the conversation in a team. 

Take the example of a soil moisture sensor- that would be absolutely key for irrigation in Ethiopia. A woman has to carry every single bucket of water from one place to another, so each bucket has to count. And we know from research that if you over water, the crop yield will go down. Watering just the right amount can increase yield by quite a bit. If we were to make a project like this, it would require social scientists who understand behavioural change and why people do what they do and why they decide not to change and the regulations involved in implementing the project.

On the way to dinner and dancing to celebrate two days of hard work!

On the way to dinner and dancing to celebrate two days of hard work!

Myself and Abigail Twenewaa (Graduate in Chemicals Engineering from KNUST)

Myself and Abigail Twenewaa (Graduate in Chemicals Engineering from KNUST)

I ended each interview with the following question: “What is something that you think is important for people to know about Ghana?” Every single person mentioned the food, but here’s a selection of other bits:

Isaac: We are so much into football. Wherever you go in Ghana, you always talk about football.

Harry: You will always remember how religious it is. If you want to organise a Biomaker training event at a university on a Sunday, out of 100 people, only 5 people will show up. 

Abigail: Our culture is so beautiful, especially our dance. When we are graduating, we had one lecturer was also a singer and dancer who led a call-and-response with dancing. “Learning is difficult, learning is difficult, then there is work.” During graduation, they make you know that they appreciate your effort. We sing about things happening around us and the dance moves each have a meaning. Maybe one day if we have the opportunity to meet again I will show you some of the dance moves. 

Michael: Ghanaians always find a way to make a lighter side of very serious things. We always have that humorous side of us, irrespective of the tension, so that it doesn’t escalate. Growing up, we had lots of intercultural, interregional interactions, so you get to interact with people from different backgrounds and with belief systems from an early age. That, and we live more of an extended family system. We are very receptive, peaceful people.

Ousman: The people - Ghanaians are inquisitive and always want to learn more. When we see people coming from other parts of the world, we see them as bringing something new. We also like to explore and know what else is out there. 

I asked Ousman to explain the important difference between banku, kokonte and fufu, three variations of a staple food in Ghanaian cuisine. The pounded starch is combined and boiled into a soft, fluffy ball that is often accompanied by a rich stew or soup.

Banku is fermented corn and cassava, fufu is cassava and plantain, and kokonte is just cassava. For some people, its about the occasion. Banku is more common, so you could have it every day whereas fufu would be for weekends or if there is a party. It also depends on the individual, somebody might prefer one texture over another. And different tastes and textures go with different soups like palm nut soup, ground nut soup, or fish soup.

We had a wonderful time in Ghana and look forward to seeing how these projects progress. We’re also excited to continue building links between Cambridge and Kumasi. Thank you to Harry Akligoh and the team at Kumasi Hive for organising and to all of the incredibly motivated training participants.

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Links on hackster.io/Biomaker

Summary of workshop

Sensor for Mercury Detection in Water

Colorimeter for Urine Analysis

Photos by the media team at Kumasi Hive

SynBio SRI Coordinator