The Makerspace: Crafting a Future for Kenya

In a small village in Kenya, a UW-Madison faculty associate is developing a “Makerspace” where women and girls can learn to make products that will improve their standard of living.

By Alyssa Hantzsch Photos by Lesley Sager Print Design by Ryan Krull
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A few lucky children have bikes to help haul jugs of water and ease their long daily journeys.

Across America, engineers are expending countless hours and resources crafting these technologies to perfection. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in the small village of Gatunga, Kenya, even the most basic forms of these technologies are almost unheard of. While Americans are accessing more information, more rapidly, and on more compact devices, Gatunga villagers are spending the majority of their precious income on the most basic education for their children. While Americans are traveling faster and in more style and comfort, Kenyans are walking for hours on end just to find clean water. While Americans are building their homes bigger and grander than ever before, Kenyans are building huts out of mud and sticks. Although conditions are less than ideal for the people of Gatunga, Lesley Sager sees a world of possibilities for a brighter future in the village – possibilities that could easily be transformed into reality if the skills and resources of the developing world could be shared with Kenya.

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Handmade bags are one product that Sager hopes to teach the women to sell to provide a source of income.

A UW-Madison faculty associate in the interior design department, Sager has been working in the field for about fifteen years, running her own residential design practice, as well as teaching undergraduate interior design classes. Recently, though, her focus has been directed farther afield, to the people of Gatunga. Currently, her top priority is to develop a village center called a “Makerspace,” a hub of resources for women and girls to learn skills and create products that will improve their standard of living and provide a stable source of income.

The need for this project was brought to Sager’s attention through the work of a student who built a disaster relief shelter in response to a prompt for one of Sager’s design courses. The completed, full-scale shelter was displayed at the Modern Museum of Contemporary Art here in Madison. “Somebody saw it and thought it was a perfect example of something that could be used in areas such as Kenya, where a lot of homes were being destroyed by monsoons due to a lack of building materials,” Sager says. “Their houses were built out of mud and sticks, and when it rained, it rained hard, and the houses would literally disintegrate away.” Hopeful that the design could be put to use, Sager traveled to Kenya in the winter of 2013, intending to investigate the need for portable disaster relief shelters and the materials available for building them.

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A woman caring her handmade bag, a traditional craft in Kenya.

However, when she realized that it was not feasible to produce the disaster shelters in Kenya due to materials costs, Sager’s work morphed into something completely different. She began working with a woman in Gatunga who had started a women’s welfare program that promoted health and sex education for young girls. Her interest in the learning environment for women was piqued when she made a troubling observation. “While I was there, one of the things that I noticed was that education was very important, but the making of things was virtually nonexistent,” Sager says. “The women weren’t making or perpetuating anything from their traditional culture.” With this observation, Sager began to form an idea: perhaps women and girls could develop these skills if they were given a “Makerspace” where they could come together to learn the crafts of their culture. “My first thought was that we could do workshops with sewing machines, we could teach them how to dye fabric and weave traditional kiondo bags, we could make clay beads,” Sager says. Bursting with ideas for the new Makerspace, Sager left Kenya, planning to continue her work there the following winter.

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Many women and children travel for hours on foot every day to get water.

When Sager returned to Kenya in the winter of 2014, it was with a broader perspective than before. “I went back with a graduate student,” she says, “and when we got there, we took a couple of steps back.” Looking at the bigger picture, Sager and her student realized that while the women did have an interest in traditional crafts, they had many higher priorities. They didn’t have time to think about weaving or making jewelry when the simple chore of obtaining water demanded a four-hour trek. Most women in Tharaka made a living by selling crops, but even farming was not a stable source of income due to limited water access and an arid climate. To make matters worse, the tools available for use in the fields were primitive at best. Sager quickly came to the realization that these daily struggles were the issues that needed to be addressed first.

As Sager incorporated these needs into her master plan, the original Makerspace concept began to evolve into something bigger. Through her research and conversations with the women of Gatunga, she identified skills which, given access to training and resources, the villagers could use to improve their basic livelihoods. “Now the Makerspace, which we will be calling the Tharaka Women’s Makers Studio, will be a space where women can come together and not only learn to make beads and kiondos, but also learn to make things like bee houses, so they can start bee keeping,” Sager says. “At the Makerspace, they will have the equipment available to them to build their own bee houses and learn how to harvest the honey for consumption and product production.” Other ideas Sager has generated include teaching the women basket weaving, sewing and using more efficient cooking technologies. She also hopes to provide structure for a “Merry-Go-Round” fund, a community pool of money and resources that can be invested in livestock or farm tools for use by all of the villagers who contributed to the fund.

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Lesley Sager is a faculty associate in the school of Human Ecology who is creating classes based on the idea of design thinking to help the people of Gatunga, Kenya.

Sager’s project has drawn an enthusiastic response from the villagers, and their eagerness is now propelling the project even further. “The women and girls in Gatunga and from the neighboring villages are very excited about the possibility of a space where they can come and learn new skills as well as develop ones that they already know,” Sager says. “The village chief, Nicholas Nyaga, has designated an existing building and six acres of land towards the project.”

With the support of the villagers behind her and one grant already under her belt, Sager is ready to launch her Makerspace into the development phase. In order to bring the project to fruition, though, she needs to tap into the university’s greatest resource: its students. She is currently devising a curriculum for a three-semester course set to begin in the fall of 2014 that will be centered on the Makerspace project. Students taking the class will work to develop Sager’s existing ideas for the Makerspace, as well as research new ones. The course will be based on the concept of “design thinking,” a thought process that Sager says is essential in many interior design projects. “Design thinking is basically a process that begins with the concept of empathy, meaning you think about the user first, and define what the problem is based off of their point of view,” Sager describes. “From there you begin to come up with ideas of how to resolve the problem. Then you start to prototype, and once you make a product, you test it to see how it’s working. And it can be a cyclical process that keeps going back to the user.” Focusing on sustainability, availability of resources and time and cost efficiency, students will develop products for the Makerspace over the course the fall semester. If all goes according to Sager’s plan, they will take these products to Gatunga for testing during the winter interim and then reevaluate and refine the designs in the spring semester.

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Lesley Sager is working closely with the village leaders of Gutanga to convert this unfinished building into a Makerspace.

Although the class will fall under the umbrella of the interior design program in the School of Human Ecology, Sager does not want to exclude students in other colleges and majors. In fact, due to the close resemblance of her design thinking process to the reiterative design process taught in many introductory engineering classes, she is hoping to recruit engineering students and faculty to participate in and direct the course. “One of the best ways that you can get a design thinking course to work is to have multiple instructors from different disciplines, because that’s what design thinking is all about. It’s about people with specialties, and then they all think along this same design thinking plane,” Sager explains. “It’s all about collaboration, about bringing different disciplines together and finding the overlaps. That’s how you come up with unusual and brilliant ideas.”

This project, helmed by the powerful force of determination and compassion that is Lesley Sager, holds infinite promise for the women in Gatunga. By bringing together the talents of a diverse group of students and faculty, Sager is pioneering a better future for the people of rural Kenya – and demonstrating what a potent catalyst for change collaboration and diversity can be.

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A woman carries her child through the marketplace as she searches for a goat to purchase, a precious resource that could be provided to many villagers through a “Merry-Go-Round” Fund.