Mango Safari: Where design research meets academic research

For the last week half of our office, Erik Widmark and Jenny Annebäck, have been conducting field studies in the Tana River County, in the east part of Kenya. The focus of the study has been to understand the harvesting process of mangoes from the perspective of women farmers. This has been the first module out of two in a project led by UN Women and financed by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Throughout the project Erik and Jenny are working together with Stockholm Environment Institute, SEI and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, JKUAT combining academic research with service design research in order to capture the needs and driving forces of the women farmers.

This first field study was conducted in and around the small village of Hola, one of many areas along the Tana River, populated by orchards of 5–20 m high mango trees. With the great help of their local partner TechnoServe, the project team had the opportunity to meet and work with more than 45 local farmers in the area.

The week of research have been filled with mango experiences, from harvesting techniques and quality grading to the life stories of the farmers where school fees and disadvantageous price negotiations consume a lot of their energy. It has also been a week of laughter, insights and personal connection where empathy and co-creation have played a big role.

Our field study has the perspective of the woman farmer, as our objective is to understand her experience of growing, harvesting and selling mangoes in order to see where and what interventions could improve her livelihood. In relation to this, it was also important for us to understand in what context the farmer operates and what other stakeholders she is interacting with and hence influencing her business. Thus, we also researched the experience of two other (and what we came to understand, important) stakeholders; local buyers, so called brokers and farmer organisations.

The first two days in Hola were spend meeting with women farmers and emerging into their everyday lives at the farm while the third day was focusing on understanding the two other stakeholders. With the great help of four Kenyan master students from JKUAT (Tirra, Daisy, Virginia and Erastus), we were able to better understand the cultural context and do our research in the national language Swahili — a crucial factor for the work and the success of the research. Each research day was divided into phases. In the morning we observed and conducted interviews in the field. Around lunch we held a “Mango Safari Mapping” workshop with the stakeholders and each evening we analysed the day’s data and built a Customer Journey Map. At the end of the week we held a stakeholder workshop with the aim to verify our data and co-create the Customer Journey Map.

Mango research in the mornings:

Each morning around eight we met up with the farmers in their shamba (field) before the sun made it too hot to think. According to local tradition every morning started with a prayer with the farmers, wishing for a good harvest and good friendship between us. Then we spend time emerging into the context of the farmer by participatory observations, focusing on the activities around the mango harvesting and selling process. By being endlessly curious and asking a lot of questions we wanted to understand the drivers and needs in various steps of the harvesting process.

Mango Safari Mapping after lunch:

After having lunch together, usually under a mango tree away from the sun, we continued our research by holding a workshop with 2–4 farmers. We asked the gave the farmers symbols and pictures and asked them to use these cards to show a harvesting day and tell their story. Some participants jumped straight into the exercise scanning through the cards in order to find those representing their experience, while others preferred to talk us through their day while we together placed cards on the ground representing their story. The purpose of the workshop was to bridge the cultural and language barriers and to move the discussion from the farmer to their process/day. By visualizing the process we could also see the series of events over time and how they were affecting each other. The workshop sessions gave us a deeper understanding of what role mango farming plays in the lives of the farmers, what other stakeholders are part in the process and what happens throughout the harvesting season. Most participants also seem to enjoying the workshop which helped us to build rapport with the farmers.

Evening analysis

Analysis in the evenings:

Every evening we came together in the project team to discuss and analyse our findings and data of the day in the field. One of our hotel rooms was built into a project zone, filled with notes, post-its and research material.

On one of the walls we created the customer journey map, or mango safari(= journey in Swahili) map, where we together visualized and co-analysed the mango farmers journeys, needs and challenges. Day by day we gradually added to the map and defined new focus areas for the following day’s research. This iterative research approach allowed us to calibrate our research method and sharpen our questions to fill knowledge gaps.

Stakeholder Workshop:

The last day of our field week we gathered some 25 farmers and local politicians and invited them to change, complete and verify the customer journey that we had created. In three groups the stakeholders worked on the different segments of the customer journey adding what was missing and clarifying some of our assumptions. The farmers also expressed their needs and challenges in each phase of the journey thus giving us more important puzzle pieces. Most of the information in the journey was common knowledge. But the fact that the customer journey showed all the various phases in the process on one canvas as well as the different stakeholders roles and needs it supported a discussion where we could even talk about the relationship between the various actors in the system.

Our key takeaways:

Our design research for this project might seem like an ordinary service design project (besides the fact that it was conducted in 35 degrees C in Kenya, of course). In reality, it has been a learning process for us designers as we have tried to combined the design research approach with an academic research approach. Together with SEI we have been working at finding a joint process, using the best of the two approaches. The design perspective with its “gut feeling”, iterative, intuitive research and analysis and the academic perspective where data, analysis and hypothesis are strictly separated in order to build and share knowledge for a better scientific understanding.

Both perspectives equally important to make positive interventions for people and improve lives, however with sometimes different ways of conducting the research and analysis. This exploitative way of working, combining perspectives, has triggered us to find new ways of doing design.

We want to learn more about what design can contribute to others, but we also have to re-think and build new tools and processes enabling us to collaborate with other disciplines so that we together can tackle more complex challenges and create bigger social impact and change.

Have you ever cross-fertilized your design work with another approach and how did you experience it?