Project Tontro: Inspiring Maker Communities in Ghana through robotics

On Saturdays fortnightly, the Science Lab at the Cosmos Basic School located at Lapaz, Accra serves host to a group of young technology enthusiasts tinkering with various microcontrollers and electrical components. Benedict Quartey '18, founder of the initiative - Project Tontro - pioneering this High School Maker Movement hopes that beyond all the fun tinkering, these young makers will be ignited with a flame of curiosity and innovation which can be channeled into creative problem solving.

"The idea behind this is for the kids to understand how things work and give them confidence to try out new things,” explained Benedict. “We want to help develop the curiosity in them to try and fix problems: to see a problem out there and have the tools and the knowledge to be able to fix it.”

The name Project Tontro is inspired by a maker subculture that already exists in Ghana. Ghanaian kids have had a long tradition of building cars out of tin cans and flip-flops locally referred to as Tontro cars. Project Tontro aims at building on top of this already existing maker ecosystem, a layer of innovation that takes full advantages of the steady drop in the price-performance of computer hardware. Leveraging on the proliferation of sensor, motors and microcontrollers such as the Arduino, this initiative has started high school kids off on robotics, by having them program autonomous Tontro cars.

Currently being funded by the Ashesi-Ford Grant, Project Tontro is presently being piloted at the Cosmos Basic School, Benedict’s alma mater. Project Tontro’s curriculum has been carefully designed to incorporate activities and lessons in Design Thinking and Creative Problem Solving. At the end of this pilot the participants will have been equipped with skills which they will then employ to work on Arduino projects of their choosing.

Benedict and his team at the moment are working with 20 Junior High School students at the Cosmos Basic School. The project has future ambitions of expanding to remote areas in Ghana; establishing maker communities aimed at equipping people with hands-on knowledge of technology. These network of makers will serve as a vehicle Project Tontro intends to deploy in spreading curiosity and creative inspiration which are necessary enablers in harnessing technology to solve society’s challenges.

“For Ghanaians to start making our own things by our own technology and get other people to use our technology - that’s a disruptive market we’re opening,” said Benedict. “Right now these kids can tackle technical problems in whatever role they find themselves. That’s an eye-opening experience.”

Globally Maker Faires have been very useful in providing avenues for makers globally to collaborate as well as explore market viability of some of their inventions. All over the world Maker Faires are gaining popularity and Maker Communities are increasingly getting vibrant. From 2012 up until now, there have been over 400 Maker Faires organized around the world. These Maker Faires are going a long way in championing and promoting the inventions of makers globally while also serving as an effective revenue generator for the maker community.  

Project Tontro fits into a world-wide network of Global Makers who have opted to use technology at their disposal to empower their societies and communities. The Project Lead - Benedict - an avid tinkerer himself, with a work plan for building a 3D printer made mostly of 3D printed parts is optimistic that Ghana could be filled with young people the likes of Da Vinci and Tesla, who will not be afraid to dream solutions that will truly transform Ghana and Africa as a whole.

"Working on this project has been such an amazing and fulfilling journey. Just a couple of weeks ago the kids destroyed my laptop, but they did it in such a brilliant way! They had opened up my faulty charger with the aim of fixing it; however they bypassed a couple of resistors, and fried my computer. I have to get a new computer now, but this experience showed me the impact the project was having on this kids. I had successfully helped them to become curious little geniuses who weren't afraid to tackle a problem just because they hadn't encountered it before. It was magical."