A cross-continental architecture studio with solutions for Harare’s informal traders

The architects behind Studio [D] Tale propose a set of innovative designs to improve life for informal traders in African cities.

In many African cities urban crossroads are a hub of informal activity. It’s not unusual to find city residents shopping there for snacks, groceries, mobile phone credit, leather shoes, clothes and even stranger items such as tombstones and four-poster beds

London, Cape Town and Harare-based design studio Studio [D] Tale (whose name is pronounced Studio Detail and is inspired by their profession’s preoccupation with detail drawing), has noticed that the environment where this trade takes place has only evolved due to the resourcefulness of the vendors themselves, instead of any intentional urban planning or consideration by an architect.

As a result many of the street vendors have no access to water, sanitation or electricity. Studio [D] Tale has developed some innovative designs to change this.

“Design is problem solving,” says co-founder Maxwell Mutanda, “but the solution is not always a building.”

Studio [D] Tale recent work has focussed on designing ways to provide informal traders in African cities with low-cost solutions to their basic need for sanitation, shelter and energy. Their Crossroads project looks at the needs of informal vendors in Harare.

The two founders, Safia Qureshi and Maxwell Mutanda, met while studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL in London. Qureshi is based in their London studio while Mutanda moves between a small studio in Cape Town and their research sites in Harare, where he was born and raised.

Studio [D] Tale use the city of Harare “as an incubator of innovative design that we hope can be exported throughout the continent”, says Mutanda.

In Zimbabwe 46 per cent of the economy is made up of informal trade, significantly more than the 17 per cent in South Africa and 13 per cent in Malawi.

“After the financial crisis and with the rise of developing countries on the global economic field we are really excited by the opportunities presented by ‘new’ cities here in Africa. Few places outside of China and the Gulf States like the UAE are experiencing such rapid change,” says Mutanda. “We are drawn to work that doesn’t neglect the large percentage of the population. Therefore we are keen to do more socially conscious projects.”

The five design solutions that Studio [D] Tale has conceived for Harare’s low-income market place traders are: a brise soleil and rainwater-collecting umbrella, composting toilets, pallet flooring, simple washbasins and standardised display units.

These solutions provide the crossroads traders with access to clean water, sanitation and renewable energy.

Most street vendors have created some sort of shading using tarpaulins of branded umbrellas provided by big corporations such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Studio [D] Tale has designed an inverted umbrella that is valuable to the user in sunshine or rain. In wet weather the umbrella catches the rainwater, which can then be used to tend crops planted  by the roadside or be treated with readily available water purifiers. The umbrella’s additional beneficial feature is photovoltaic solar cells that allow the vendors to generate electricity for themselves.

“The umbrella is one of the most expensive solutions we are proposing,” says Mutanda. “However, I think it is important to show that what one considers as disadvantages of selling out in the open – the sun and the rain – can actually be harnessed to the end-user’s advantage.”

The studio has also been working on a design for a waterless, composting toilet to provide vendors who are not linked to the municipal grid with sanitary facilities.

Studio [D] Tale also proposes that street vendors use Euro pallets as flooring as Harare’s roadsides are often unpaved. The spaces between the wooden boards can be planted with indigenous grasses. Pre-fabricated, open-ended boxes can be used to create the walls of a customised stall.

“Our shelving unit is seen as a complement to their existing display units,” says Mutanda. “Chalkboard paint is applied to areas of our units so that the vendors can display prices or list specials as you would find in any supermarket.”

The last of Mutanda’s solutions for vendors is a portable basin made from a bucket and plastic dish to give the vendors somewhere to wash their hands and their goods. The basin has been designed to be made out of easily available components, so that vendors can build their own. Wastewater can be collected from the sink and reused in the gardens or flooring panel grasses of the vendors.

The designs are all open-source and have been prototyped with readily available materials to ensure low manufacturing and improvement costs to the users. Not dissimilar to the rafia stall designed for the informal markets in Ghana by New York-based design studio noCOLOUR.

Five vendors in Harare are currently using Studio [D] Tale’s prototypes. After a three-month trial period, the studio hopes to roll out their designs to additional users.

Studio [D] Tale has been selected to take part in the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennale in October 2015, North America’s largest international survey of contemporary architecture. The work that Studio [D] Tale will exhibit at will address the need for design with an emphasis on social change.

Later this month the Crossroads project by Studio [D] Tale will be exhibited as part of the Africa exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, running from 25 June to 25 October 2015.

Watch the Talk with Maxwell Mutanda