How Nairobi has changed the way I design

Kate Darmody
Jul 3, 2019 · 9 min read
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I currently work in the private sector, designing solutions across a spectrum of industries, including finance and health care. When a pro bono opportunity came my way in 2018 I found myself supporting a tech startup in Nairobi, Kenya. This opportunity has allowed me to develop an understanding of different challenges outside of the private sector where I currently work, and familiarize myself with new practices. In this short account of my experience, I will share few key learnings that will impact my approach to design into the future.

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Power to the Commons

Kenya is solving the tragedy of the commons. Dissimilar to trends witnessed in the private sector, where privatization is foundational to economic success, many of the startups I came upon were interested in contributing the common-good.

Ownership is a significant incentive when it comes to the sustainability and maintenance of a product and solves for these concerns when working in the private sector. However, I observed numerous initiatives in Nairobi that strive to alleviate day-today challenges by closing the wealth disparity. This can be done by knowledge share, ensuring data is available to the masses or by contributing to the share economy.

During a brief conversation with a cattle farmer I met in Maasai, I learned about an app called Afriscout. Afriscout allows Maasai pastoralists to connect to satellite powered maps which display the density of plant vegetation. The app displays the availability of water in the areas in which they graze their cattle, preventing the environmental impacts of overgrazing. The app was initially devised by a USA non-profit, Project Concern International, and the app is currently being used by 4,000 herders. Herders have reported that it has halved the mortality rate of their cattle during periods of drought, in turn stabilizing their income. It has also saved them valuable time which would have been spent searching for pasture.

As a designer, I use creative-commons platforms regularly in my work and am grateful for their existence, and I know it makes me more efficient in my work. I believe Kenya’s community approach could push the technology industry to make more significant advances even more frequently — ultimately bringing a greater long term advantage to everyone.

Harnessing what I witnessed in Nairobi, since returning to the US I have started contributing photographs back Unsplash. I have also been sharing digital resources and tools on design platforms and I am in frequent contact with fellow designers in Nairobi who lean on me for mentorship. When working within the private sector, I find myself advocating for solutions that will (perhaps implicitly) benefit others and advance our community.

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Unlearning to Learn

Some lessons in life come at the expense of unlearning others. When we learn to be confident, we shed self doubt. When we respond with compassion we abandon our ego. When we experience empathy, we surrender distance.

Within my first few days, I learnt that I needed to leave behind the expectations we govern ourselves by in the private sector. Strict schedules, short lunch breaks, elaborate proposals and business-talk are no longer high priority. We had to be flexible as there were a lot of things outside of our control, like traffic, which could impact daily schedules. We enjoyed longer lunch breaks with the entire team and had to be adaptable and creative when things changed.

I began to realize the importance of taking calculated risks. Pondering a decision when working in the humanitarian sector could have far more catastrophic impacts on people’s lives. The decisions we were making were far more urgent and necessary when compared to the things prioritized in the private sector and this is a healthy perspective to have gained. With this I saw my ‘lean’ mindset start to shift and backlogs were simplified.

Ambiguity made way for facts, only to be replaced with new clouds and so the cycle continues.

We all have a tendency to want to resist this, hoping the next answer will be the solution. But I learnt to find comfort in knowing this is all part of the process. A new strategy, rebranding, a tweak in the service design, UI updates, a fresh marketing campaign — nothing lasts forever; and this is a recurring theme we see across all industries.

The implicit skill of acquiring and abandoning knowledge lies in change itself.

What you are really learning is how to unlearn while synchronously increasing your brain’s malleability. When we can see life as an aggregation of dualities we are able to see through the two seemingly contradictory sides and this puts us in a position to innovate.

So, what exactly is Kenya doing differently?

Employing Eco-friendly Practices

While Kenya’s economic stability is highly dependant on activities such as agriculture, mining and tourism, I quickly observed that the people are deeply connected to their land and the environment. This is a feeling I could very much relate to coming from Australia where I spent a lot of time in nature.

Water is incredibly scarce and pollution is a lingering environmental and health concern, but there are many initiatives that are attempting to solve these problems. We saw an ethical mindset being applied to day-to-day practices, such as the implementation of aquaponics and the use of geothermal energy and biofuels.

Under Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency, Kenya collectively is reducing their carbon footprint in order to help mitigate climate change. With the goal of shifting to 100% green energy by 2020, it is been said that the renewable energy sector in Kenya is among the most active in Africa.

Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge is the first solar powered lodge in Kenya. Solar plants not only power the lodge but also pump water into dams for animals to access during dry seasons. Paving a new road for eco-friendly tourism, this model is now being used across lodges throughout the region.

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Creating Sustainable Solutions

How can we create a lasting impact?

With extensive innovation occurring in the social impact space, a challenge many not-for-profits struggle with is the sustainability of their solution. Across the sector, those who are striving to provoke change have been met with tight budgets, harsh timelines, limited resources, on top of what the complex and circumstantial demands that accompany this type of work.

Conversations with peers who have worked in similar fields have led me to believe that we were not alone in the struggle of reaching sustainably designed solutions. A friend recalled returning to Cambodia a few years after having spent sometime establishing a safer electrical system in a flood prone area. They found their solution had completely failed and was probably causing more harm than good. I believe this can happen for a few reasons but most commonly it is due to the community being ill-equipped to maintain whatever was built. This is analogous across industries, whether it is building in physical space or in the digital space.

Simply put: maintenance requires time, money and knowledge — all of which are difficult to access.The most powerful tool or offering our team had to offer was our knowledge.

Determined to make sure our work could (and would be sustained), we focused on coaching and essentially making ourselves redundant.

In our first meeting I noticed the mutual eagerness to learn from each other and I fondly remember one of our stakeholders saying “I do, we do, you do”, a brilliant indication for how the learn best. With this in mind we pursued working in collaboration. While I was onsite I made sure my presentations were brief, leaving more time to put methodologies into practice. I found the team was reserved in large group settings and would be less likely to ask questions in front of my peers. I allotted time at the end of each day to work 1:1 with people so everyone had a chance to ask questions and learn. As a team steered away from building the app or presenting in lecture form and instead taught Twiga various collaborative methods that could help to open communication lines. Our full day innovation session included warm ups, breakout sessions, discussion groups and then at the end we taught Twiga how to establish priorities within their backlog.

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As Richard Branson once said:

“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.”

Before I left Australia I believed it was more valuable to offer a breadth of skills, rather than to specialize in one area. It didn’t help that I had diverse interests that seemed difficult to connect. When I arrived in the US and started looking for work, I discovered all of my different skills weren’t increasing my likelihood of getting employed, but were probably hindering it.

Here is why:

  • Unicorns are rare and it is difficult to be a master in everything.
  • Niches help people to understand what you do. (How can we expect recruiters to know how pitch you to potential employers if you don’t have a title? Verbiage is also important here.)
  • Diversity in skills can be perceived as clutter, making it difficult for others to remember what you do.
  • People will refer business to you and market for you if they know what your focus is.

We hear about the T-shaped skill set frequently within the field of technology. We are reminded of the importance of establishing soft skills (breadth) as well as, depth (niche), but creating depth means filtering out other interests and this can be more difficult than it seems. While Twiga only sells fruit and vegetables (mostly bananas) they have established an incredibly strong foundation of customers.

A few things I learnt while working with Twiga:

  • Less is more. They supersede their competition as they treat their customers personally and with such care. They establish relationships and this builds loyalty.
  • Twiga streamlines the decision making process for their customers by having fewer options.
  • In Kenya they prefer to eat organic and seasonally. Added this, Twiga is selling to retailers who want to purchase produce as fresh as possible so that it won’t turn before they can sell it. Basically, no one is sad if they can’t by strawberries because they aren’t in season.
  • Marketing costs can be spent elsewhere as their customers market for them by word-of-mouth and recommendation.
  • In a place like Nairobi it isn’t often that you see people wearing uniforms. As a unique marketing strategy, Twiga has provided their staff with Twiga shirts and coats. When you see someone in a Slum wearing a branded t-shirt/uniform it really captures people’s attention and generates as sense of familiarity.
  • Some might say they are closing themselves off to customers customers, but rather through niching they are refining their customers. I have seen diversify as a means to gain a larger customer base and in doing so appeal to no-one, losing even their existing customers.

A Global Vision

As mentioned in a previous article, I believe the Kenyan sound and vision is one of diversity. The struggles faced in Kenya are very different to the challenges we see everyday in the private sector. But just as their music and art is a reflection of an incredibly resilient society, their technology scene is a reflection — and a celebration — of their joys, struggles and victories.

Kenya is a meeting point for many different cultures across the globe and just as history has made them who they are, this will continue to influence who they become.

Having travelled the world I have had the opportunity to experience many different places. However the most profound takeaway I now carry with me in all of my endeavours is the act of curiosity. Our inclination to learn is key to achieving change.

Want to learn more about Kenya?

Here are a few other resources that might inspire you to hop over to explore it for yourself.

Reading: A brilliant book by Robin Wiszowaty titled My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah

Podcasts: Omenerds is a wonderful podcast that is recorded on the ground in Kenya.

Short Stories: Nice Story by Kevin Mwachiro can be accessed via Soundcloud.

Other Articles: I have written a few blogs on my experience, one of which can be found here.

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