Africa Should Prioritize and Promote Design

Published on 27th December 2022

Africa is full of promise and untapped riches ranging from huge mineral reservoirs, expansive land, diverse flora and fauna, and vast people capital with imaginable abilities. Yet, since colonial interferences, the continent still struggles to realize its potential. Ironically, the continent is demonized as either poor, underdeveloped, or developing. Some of Africa's perennial challenges are attributed to geography, legacies of colonization, internal conflicts, undemocratic rule, corruption, foreign debts, and harmful policies.

On the design front, products, processes, and services created for Africa by non-Africans are imposed on Africans as design solutions which instead become design issues.

Africa's famous proverb, "Bought things do not fill the granary," is classic advice on the importance of home-grown design solutions. The saying highlights the need for Africa to embrace internal design solutions relevant and consistent with the people’s needs. According to the saying, Africa’s development should revolve around design policies coined to facilitate practical design thinking in areas of research and training, manufacturing, trade, product promotion, materials resources, innovation, and technology. Africa is a granary of ideas, opportunities, services and products.

Design Policy for Africa

Design-related issues affecting Africa have been broadly looked at in various continental forums with varying implementation outputs. The African Union (AU) encourages increased cooperation and integration of African states to drive Africa's growth and economic development through the development and promotion of standard policies on trade. Member states should be encouraged to formulate and enact specific design policies to protect and promote sustainable design practices. Design should form a vital policy item in AU's objectives to advance the continent's development. The AU’s invitation of Africans living in the diaspora to participate in the continent’s development is bound to bridge design gaps between Africa and its global counterparts of America, Europe, and Asia, as well as rejuvenate vital social and economic linkages beneficial to Africa.

 “Do not look at where you fell, but where you slept” is another African proverb reminding the African continent to go past earlier design mistakes and focus on what caused them to avoid repetition. Africa’s design failure can be traced to colonial interference that destabilized Africa’s design foundries, factories, crafts, and businesses. The proverb inspires the region to forge futuristic design policies that enhance progression in innovation. Design strategies that improve the manufacturing industry, especially small-sector manufacturing, will increase social-economic integrations through industrialization and employment in the rural and urban regions of the continent. 

Design Needs in Rural and Urban Africa

Disparities in quality of life between urban and rural residents have been the subject of many discussions. On average, urban residents enjoy a higher quality of life achieved by design than their counterparts in rural areas. For instance, Africa, like Asia, is the only remaining continent where the rural population outnumbers the urban and where people move from rural to urban areas for economic advancement. This creates urban sprawl settlements with an immense need for design products and services. Urban-rural migrations in Africa have caused overcrowding, poor housing, unemployment, pandemics, and political turmoil. All social and economic issues in rural, peri-urban and urban regions require specific design solutions to define, develop, manage, and preserve the ideal ecosystems in which the people enjoy living and working.

Design Research and Development

Design research excellence in Africa resides in monographs and articles on the contributions designers made to the field, leading to need for more reliable empirical data on the influence of design on development. Africa’s design scholars, enthusiasts, and professionals should hinge on the sea of empirical data worldwide to fully embark on Africa-induced research ideas, concepts, and programs that can bring forth new homegrown design knowledge for Africa’s future innovations.

Goods, Services, and Processes by Africans

Africa’s 1.3 billion people are a huge market for goods and services. The availing of these goods and services calls for design solutions.  Small and mediums enterprises (SMEs), which form the backbone of the African economy, representing more than 90% of businesses and employing about 60% of workers have been key in servicing the demand of goods and services. Embracing of design in SMEs will lead to better innovations, products, and services and successfully connect the continent’s trade to compete in international markets. Africa should build processes that improve the internal consumption of its designs (products and services) rather than focusing on providing cheap labour as a comparative advantage for global manufacturing. Suppose Africa expands its internal production and consumption treasures more among member states, decoupling from old colonial trade routes, faster continental growth will be realized.

Design Funding in Africa

Africa has enough resources that can be prioritized to fund design programs adequately. At least 42% of Africa's wealth ($920m) is held by high-net-worth individuals capable of funding design-related programs. The irony that twenty-three billionaires live on the African continent gives hope that they can mobilize resources to support impactful design programs in Africa. It is sad that 1% of Africa’s wealth is spent on importation of design products such as hospital furniture, torches, radios, toothpicks, and a variety of processed foods – including coffee grown in Africa and canned elsewhere. Africa’s billionaires should be encouraged to fund design programs and innovations. Such philanthropic moves will provide concessional funding for design related projects, programs, technical assistance and capacity-building activities.

Design Materials and Technologies

Africa should desist from exporting raw materials and importing more processed goods by safeguarding material reservoirs for Africa's design use and not for raw materials. Bilateral agreements on trade with resource-dependent countries such as the European Union (EU), the United States (US), China, Japan, and South Korea should favor Africa’s design industry growth. Natural resources, including diamond, sugar, salt, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite, silver, petroleum, cocoa beans, woods, and tropical fruits, create an extraordinary potential for the design industry in Africa before the depletion of some of these materials. 

Africa's policymakers, through member states, should intervene to spearhead continental, federal, or local initiatives to promote knowledge and technology transfers, especially in innovation. There is need for knowledge flow from technologically advanced countries and firms to Africa. Africa's manufacturing sectors which have remained dominated by low-level processing of natural resources and the manufacture of simple consumer goods aimed at domestic markets need to be upgraded and positioned for local and international markets.

Successful Africa Design

Recent design innovations from Africa give hope for design potential in the continent. Mellowcabs are high-tech electric pedicabs innovations manufactured from recycled materials. M-Pesa, a phone-based money transfer system used in several money transactions – is spreading beyond Africa to eastern Europe, Afghanistan and India. Ashifi Gogo innovation helps fight counterfeit drugs where users text a code on medicine containers to a free number to confirm authenticity. Flutterwave makes it simpler to process payments across Africa. Kodjo Afate Gnikou is a cheap 3D printer made using electronic waste. MamaOpe is a bright biomedical jacket used to diagnose the condition four times faster and more accurately than a doctor. Mubser is a breakthrough navigational aid tool designed for visually-impaired people. It guides blind people to move and navigate around common obstacles such as walls, chairs, and staircases safely and quickly.

By Adams Namayi Wamukhuma

Kenyan-Based Designer

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