The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
Reviews (Making hardware in Nairobi) image

Reviewer A

The paper addresses a relevant dimension of making by discussing the position and the role of countries from the Global South in the emergence of new spaces and practices. In this sense, it is perfectly adherent to the general themes upon which the Journal’s special issue is being shaped. It also presents a significant contribution to the understanding the specific dynamics of institutionalization of maker communities in the context of developing countries. 

I think the author made a good choice in building their arguments from the critics of the fetishism regarding the “California ideology” or the “Silicon Valley myth”. This helps to make a strong point for the need to think about coexisting narratives that struggle for prevalence over one another. And it also leads to a broader, crucial question: should we frame our ideas, concepts and methods around the notion of “a” maker culture or must we consider alternative forms and contexts of making? The answer, surely enough, leads to the second option.

I believe the subject matter is very relevant and the paper contributes to filling a gap in the emerging literature around it.

In the first pages, the author state that there is a general praise for makerspaces as educational tools, with which I personally agree. It seems that specially in “developing” countries, making is seen fundamentally as a complement or a drive for improvement in education. This might be a point to further elaborate in the paper, since there is some debate about whether makerspaces could provide a basis for developing countries to catch-up (or leapfrog) along the technological trajectory determined by the Global North.

There are some strong statements in the paper that need to be backed by further empirical evidence and theoretical elements. Some examples below:

“Awareness about the ongoing processes in Nairobi is created by visiting international conferences on innovation, giving TED talks, writing blog articles, etc.” (p. 6)

“The toughest part of working on a technological idea is to gain funding in order to work on it, because, until now, the priority for local investors in Kenya lies in the property market.” (p. 6) – What about other restraining elements? Public policies (or the lack of them), for example?

“Many people in Nairobi problematize the dependency on the values and visions of financial investors, as the effects are manifold: a developer is not ‘allowed’ (or financed) to develop tech without a certain social impact and the supported start-ups and their products are used as successful stories to tell.” (p. 8) – Are there other statements/interviews that go in the same direction?

“The belief that tech can solve social problems that are incorporated by the international funders and investors in Nairobi, has already been criticized by various scholars. The origin of those beliefs is predominantly ascribed to Silicon Valley.” (p. 9) – Maybe present some of this criticism more deeply?

I suggest the author further elaborate these ideas to present readers with a more consistent paper. The part of the text dedicated to exploring the Nairobi experience (pp. 4-10) should be expanded, by offering a more in-depth reflection on the dynamics and structures that shape it.

The paper is very well written and the ideas are presented in clear, organized fashion, making it easy for readers to follow the author’s arguments.

I do not think it is necessary to improve the quality of the text.

Overall, I think it is a good, promising paper. I recommend it for publication, but strongly suggest that the author work on detailing the fundamental aspects they have already outlined in the current version of the article.

Since the paper is committed to addressing a noticeable gap in the current literature by providing insights from the Global South, it could surely provide a more relevant contribution to the debate by offering readers a denser, deeper analysis of the Nairobi experience.

Reviewer B

Is the subject matter relevant?

 Yes, research exploring a makerspace in Nairobi, Kenya seems very in line with the Journal of Peer Production’s topic focus, particularly the journal’s focus on: peer production of hardware, peer production and social movements, and the political economy of peer production.

Is the treatment of the subject matter intellectually interesting? Are there citations or bodies of literature you think are essential to which the author has not referred?

 Yes, it is intellectually interesting overall. The author’s depiction of the dichotomy of Engine helping “innovators” in Nairobi to feel empowered vs. the restrictions placed on what they can get funding for wrt “social impact” technology is an important contribution to the literature around both makerspaces, and technology innovation in an African context more broadly.

As for the literature, overall the author has done a good job of including relevant citations, though I have a few added suggestions that might help further enhance it. The author adopts a few terms (e.g. ‘narratives’ and ‘performing poverty’) the usage of which would make more sense to the reader with the addition of a few more relevant reference to support their usage (see more details under  Q5 below). Similarly, on p. 4 the author does a good job describing some of the existing literature on makerspaces, and summarizes it by saying that “the majority of the literature on makerspaces predominantly contain either the hype about innovation spaces that will foster education, or the call to use the political power of making”. While I do not disagree with this overall statement, there are important exceptions and newer research that sometimes problematizes assumptions about the empowering potential of maker spaces. Often this has origins in feminist hacker research. I think the author is correct about the overall tone of the literature, but also believe it’s important to cite at least a few examples that disprove the norm. Some suggestions:

Fox, Ulgado, Rosner (2015) Hacking Culture, Not Devices: Access and Recognition in Feminist Hackerspaces, Proceedings of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing.

 Lewis, J. (2015) Barriers to women’s involvement n hackerspaces and makerspaces.

 Sarah R. Davies (2017) Characterizing Hacking: Mundane Engagement in US Hacker and Makerspaces, Science, Technology, & Human Values.

Are there any noticeable problems with the author’s means of validating assumptions or making judgments?

 Largely no. At times, however, the author uses one or two citations from interview to prove a particular point. The article would be strengthened with the addition of more citations supporting this, or with the inclusion of evidence that can make the case that the beliefs and opinions cited in interviews are not unique to a particular interviewee and instead represent a broader feeling/opinion/frustration/problem in Nairobi’s makerspace.

Is the article well written?

 Yes, no problem here. That said, some of the author’s main points do end up getting a bit lost (see Q5) and could benefit from some added signaling/reinforcing.

Are there portions of the article that you recommend be shortened, excised or expanded?

 There are a few places that I recommend the author expand if possible. To make room for it if needed I think the paragraph on p. 7 could do with being shortened/streamlined.

The author makes a very important point on p. 9 about how restricted Kenyan “innovators”, as she/he calls them, are between the dual desires of resisting the poverty-focused international imagination of Africa and the need to raise money to support more innovation from funders. This seems to be a central point of the article and one of its clear strengths, however it is only on p.9 that I found it to come through so clearly. If possible, I would recommend spending a bit more time reinforcing this throughout the piece.


I would highly recommend that a clear and thorough (though not necessarily long) section on the methodology employed be added to this article. In its current form, the author includes a short footnote to the introduction sketching the method employed. I would recommend this be included in the main text and expanded. Relatedly, I think the article would be strengthened by the inclusion of a brief section perhaps in the conclusion or in the proposed methodology section about the limitations of this study or whether there are other aspects related to the article’s subject matter that the author believes warrant further examination. Sometimes I find that, although acknowledging where our research is limited may appear to show weakness, it instead shows strength enriches the article and the body of research it is contributing to by being transparent.

Terminology expansion:

In the last portion of the article, the author refers to “narratives” a lot (as for example on p. 10). I would recommend including a clear description of what the author means by this term. In the literature, there are many different interpretations of what a “narrative” is. My suggestion would be to find a definition the author wishes to implement and include it briefly somewhere, preferably earlier on, in the piece.

Similarly, the author concludes the piece by arguing that what companies like BRCK end up doing is “performing poverty”. This is a compelling argument, but would be more so if the author gave more explanation of why he/she chose to adopt that particular language. There is a great deal of literature on performativity that I would recommend the author reference, at least very briefly. Judith Butler ‘s work on performance theory and gender is an excellent example.

How adequately does the paper address the special issue topic of ‘institutions and institutionalisation’ of makerspaces, and how could the connection be improved (particularly with the three themes in the CfP)?

The topic of this article clearly fits the CfP’s focus on makerspaces. That said, I do think the connection to ‘institutionalisation’ could be strengthened. I might suggest for example, that the author consider addressing, perhaps in the conclusion, the implications of the makerspace practices at ‘Engine’ that she/he observed (like the pressure to link technology innovation with a social impact and to fit within a foreign imagination of what is Africa) for the institutionalization (formalization in this case) of such practices and norms on the continent more broadly. As one of the apparent technology innovation pioneering hubs on the continent, there is more to say than the author currently does about the implications for the norms established in Nairobi to be institutionalized elsewhere in Africa.

Where is there room for improvement in the presentation/use of empirical material?

 I have a few short point w.r.t. the author’s use/presentation of empirical material:

The author sometimes includes this: “(Interview, [date])” when citing interviews from anonymous sources. As a fellow ethnographer, I completely understand the need to keep certain interviewees anonymous. Nevertheless, this form of attribution seems somewhat unclear, so I would recommend including the word ‘anonymous’ in the citation (so it doesn’t just look like you forgot to include the interviewee’s name), or a few more words in the text that help the reader understand the kind of person (what role they play e.g.) that the citation it is from.

The author frequently cites a primary source named Nanjira Sambuli. While this in itself is not an issue, it seems peculiar to rely so heavily on a source outside of ‘Engine’ when the research is described as an ethnography of that particular makerspace. I would recommend including a few words about Ms. Sambuli’s relationship to Engine, how the author engaged with her, and/or why the author believes she is a good (representative?) source for hardware makers in Nairobi when she herself does not directly participate in that practice.

On p. 2 the author writes: “Engine offers its members access to high-quality machines, which cannot be found anywhere else in Kenya”. I would challenge the accuracy of this statement. My own fieldwork in Nairobi, including an interview with a 3D printing importer, revealed that there are, for example, 3D printers, in Nairobi of higher quality than those available at “Engine”, but they are typically within corporate offices and not available to the freelance/entrepreneur innovators that make up Engine’s members. I would recommend simply amending that sentence to imply only that the kind of people that access the tools at Engine are not able to access them elsewhere in Kenya NOT that they do not exist elsewhere in Kenya.

Finally, an ethnography frequently makes use of empirical data beyond interviews. The article would be strengthened if the author were to include richer detail from her/his observations regarding how makers were making use of the space or moment he/she observed (rather than heard in an interview) where innovators were restricted as a result of the expectations about Africa.

Editors’ review

We have now received both reviews. Both regard your paper as very relevant to the special issue theme, for which we are grateful. Both also suggest minor revisions. Here we set out our editorial position in relation to the recommendations. 

If you are able to meet these requirements satisfactorily, we would be delighted to feature your revised paper in the special issue. Both reviewers praise the good writing and well-informed character of your first draft, and also the relevance of the topic, so we feel a stronger revised paper is a distinct possibility.

In summary, Reviewer 1 is appreciative of the aims of the paper and recommends some minor revisions. Her/his chief concern is the strong statements in the paper which are not backed up by further empirical or theoretical evidence. We agree with this point. Claims such as “many people in Nairobi problematize dependency on values and visions of financial investors” can be backed up by a deeper dive into your empirical evidence and secondary sources. 

Reviewer 2 also agrees the paper provides a much-needed insight into the nature of African shared machine shops and highly recommends its publication. S/he provides some useful suggestions around different ways the language (such as the use of the term “narratives” without clarifying) can become clearer. S/he also asks that the empirical material is relayed with more clarity, for example adding the role an informant has played along with a name (even if it is just “anonymous”) for interviews with those you are keeping anonymized, and providing more details and context on primary sources who are named such as Najira Sambuli. S/he additionally suggests integrating ethnographic data beyond just interviews, for example spatial and participant observations, to enrich the perspectives of the paper. 

Another suggestion that we agree with is the recommendation that a more thorough section outlining your methodology is added to the paper outside of the footnote that is provided in the introduction. This will strengthen the arguments already provided by expanding upon the fieldwork process itself, including its complexities and limitations.  

Furthermore, while both reviewers and ourselves agree the paper addresses the special issue topic of shared machine shops quite well, both reviewers also mention feeling that the paper’s exploration of the “institutionalization” of sites and their interactions with external collaborating bodies could be strengthened and deepened – for example through a more comprehensive treatment of the limitations of Kenyan innovators who need to raise money for projects while resisting an essentialized, poverty-focused international imagination. Reviewer 2 suggests this could be done through an analysis in the conclusion of how the formalization of Engine’s practices as a pioneering hub in Kenya may link to other similar collaborative efforts to enable social impact through technological innovation around foreign imaginations of what Africa “is”. Reviewer 2 also suggests another further explanation of the term “performance of poverty” in the conclusion to explain your issues with the products of companies like BRCK, something we agree with as it reinforces core concepts you introduced earlier in the paper on this topic. 

 Lastly, as the journal does not have funds for professional copy-editing, we ask that you do a last round of proofreading before submission, as there remain several sections (such as the use of “the Silicon Valley” instead of “Silicon Valley” or the lack of clear paragraphs in some areas like Page 10, but not others) where there are mistakes in the use of language and formatting. For example, in the first sentence in the abstract: “The first makerspace in Nairobi seems to revolutionize the development of hardware in Kenya by introducing new work possibilities for engineers and by turning stereotypes of the Global South (as mere technology recipient) and the Global North (as the only originator of tech innovation) upside down”, the bolded sections, such as parentheses, would provide a great deal of additional clarity regarding use of grammar.  

 Despite this, we want to re-emphasize that these recommendations do not imply a major re-write – as you’ve put together a powerful piece of work that we will be very happy to include in the special issue.