Stop Designing For Africa. (Part 1)

The key word in the title of this article, the word on which emphasis is placed, is not Africa. It is not the arresting command Stop. And no, despite the fact this is Medium and there is fairly high chance that you, dear reader, are a designer, the word is not Designing. The word is For.

The pivotal role the word plays in this title becomes eminently clear when compared to its converse, which so happens to be the original title of this piece. Design in Africa: Towards a New Role for Product Design in the Development of the Continent, was a research paper I wrote in early 2015 as part of my design studies at Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology. In it, I sought to analyze and argue against what I believe is half a century of waste due to a flawed approach towards design’s role in the development of African countries. Here I hope to relate my findings in a less highbrow academic more Medium-friendly format.

My first encounter with Design for Development

At 16, I was involved in what I believe was one of my very first design projects, a small scale spatial renovation at a local orphanage in the town of Jos, Nigeria, where I lived at the time. I was struck by the fact that during our first few trips to the orphanage, our team, comprised of local high school students and North American university students simply hung out and played with the children. Only much later did I realize these visits were crucial exercises in building empathy and understanding the children’s needs for an educational space before picking up a single hammer or paintbrush.

Over the course of the summer we were able to translate our empathy-driven insights from the visits into the redesign of a dirty, unused storage room into a safe and fun playroom with educational toys, colourful furniture and unique shelving systems filled with books.

Most importantly the children loved it!

Four years later and 12,000 km away, while doing some course reading for a senior-level design course, I came across an interesting product designed by product design legend, Yves Béhar. The XO is a low cost personal laptop that was designed as an educational tool to benefit millions of underprivileged children in developing countries.

My excitement was twofold considering my brief experience designing for education at the orphanage and the fact that at the time I was involved in a student-run startup with the mission statement ‘Putting Africa Online’. I dropped the book and jumped online to read further about the innovative laptop by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Much to my dismay, I quickly found that the projected goal of distributing 150 million laptops by 2008 had never been reached and only a minuscule 2 million laptops had been distributed by 2011.

What could have caused such a well-intentioned and seemingly innovative project to fail so catastrophically? This question burned in the back of my mind for months while further reading on similar products began to unearth a trend. It started to become clear why the XO had performed so poorly, particularly in the African continent.

The Trend

I believe the tragic narrative of the XO laptop, shows that it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for even the most successful western product designers to design a product for a developing country when they are not immersed in the specific context.

Unfortunately, the XO laptop was just one in a long history of failed products designed for the underprivileged in developing countries, most notably those in Sub-Saharan Africa. Prominent voice on product design for social impact, Krista Donaldson, speaks directly to the pervasiveness and media hype surrounding these projects which many times fail:

“The most recent addition to my pile of development articles, ‘Stove for the Developing World’s Health’ from The New York Times, reads like most of the other ones: nice young (usually white, usually male) Westerner visits (or reads about) poor country, is appalled by something he sees/reads, goes home and designs a solution, starts an NGO, and brings his solution to the poor country. The accompanying picture shows a clearly impoverished — but happier — user with product in a dark hut or on a sunburned scrubby dirt road.” — Krista Donaldson, CEO D-Rev

My version of Donaldson’s physical pile of development articles lives in a constantly growing folder in my Chrome bookmarks bar. Funny enough these articles come at me from all directions; fellow design students, former co-workers, African relatives etc.

Its Already Been 40+ years

What I find most troubling about the products in these articles is the fact that such a relatively small number actually end up having a long-term positive effect. Furthermore, these types of articles highlight a phenomenon that has been around for almost half a century, commonly referred to as Design for Development. Although there does seem to be a growing trend of designers being more conscious of the social impact of our work in the past few years, design as a tool for the social and economic development of third world countries is nothing new.

At a pivotal conference in the 70's, design philosophers Gui Bonsieppe and Victor Papanek proposed design for development as the responsibility of western designers and/or commercially minded companies in the developing nations. However, decades later, as multitudes of products designed with this approach have produced little socio-economic impact, even Bonsieppe and Papanek have cited the shortcomings of the ideas they championed.

The Larger Issue

Perhaps the design and subsequent failure of products intended for development are not the sole reason for the stagnant socio-economic development but in many cases the amount of development dollars that are wasted on them indicate there is a problem. Furthermore, the responses from the people for whom various products are designed indicate that there is a problem.

“It’s fine for you if I buy this product and it breaks because you will go back home. Me? I’m stuck here with it”

The waste of millions of development dollars on failed products and the pessimistic views of intended users seem to be regarded with relatively little gravity as western designers continue to churn out products meant to solve the problems of people in the developing world.

While there are numerous countries worldwide that encounter these problems, the less industrialized economies (LIEs) in Sub-Saharan Africa serve as instructive examples considering three of the most infamous products, the XO laptop, the PlayPump and the Soccket, were all distributed to the region. Although the economic and social conditions may vary slightly between various LIEs in Sub-Saharan Africa, the design considerations are very similar.

The respective failures of the Playpump, Soccket and XO each highlight one of three well-known design guidelines western designers are likely to ignore when designing products for LIEs: understanding user needs, using appropriate technology and considering the context.

In Stop Designing For Africa (Part 2), these failed products are dissected and a new way of viewing design’s role in the development of African countries is suggested.