What design thinking can do for Africa

Instead of waiting for roads to be built designers are finding their own ways to overcome the continent's challenges, says Matthias Reichwald.

From the Series

What do you intend by design?

Design is making. Design is thinking with your hands. Design is arranging the world around us to ensure the functioning and well-being of our communities. Design is the inherent human capability of understanding a challenge and its context followed by the instinctive act of rapid, iterative trial and error until a solution is found. Design is having trust in your intuition to take non-linear creative leaps in order to beat habit. Design is never finished but constantly adapting to a world in flux.

Growing up in Northern Malawi, Ackeem Ngwenya experienced first-hand rural farmers’ difficulties of bringing goods to the market with their villages being cut off from the country’s designated road networks. An experience that followed him throughout his life, he was eventually empowered to address the problem while studying at the Royal College of Art in London. Under the name Roadless he is designing a shape-shifting wheel that is able to adapt to different, previously impassable terrains, providing market access for rural communities.

While the linear approach would be to wait for those roads to be built, the designer’s nature is to make their own way to overcome the challenges at hand.

What is the most important thing African entrepreneurs need to know about design?

Design today knows no perfect solutions, but only continuous adaption to constantly changing environments. Considering the abundance of infrastructure vacuums across the continent, Africans have to be creative in every aspect of their lives in order to survive. Broken or non-existent structures – from government and transportation to education and health care, to name just a few – force people to adopt inquisitive, entrepreneurial dispositions in order to work their way around the system.

However, this may turn out to be Africa’s greatest advantage over the next decades, since less defined structures allow for greater systemic change. As more and more Africans gain access to the internet and thereby a pool of nearly infinite knowledge, tools and communities, the ubiquitous challenges at hand could serve as fertile soil for groundbreaking technologies and innovations.

In fact, if harnessed effectively, Africa has an unprecedented opportunity to grow more organic, agile, citizen-centric infrastructures, emerging from and thriving through the entrepreneurial endeavours of its people, by turning their ideas into the very fabric of their societies.

Witnessing migrant workers’ difficulties in Mozambique to send remittances and goods to relatives across the border, Suzana Moreira founded moWoza, a mobile phone-based supply-chain solution allowing product orders through a simple SMS and subsequent delivery to merchants in the families’ home villages. Moreira saw poor and insecure infrastructures making product delivery a costly and risky endeavor – a vacuum that she succeeded to fill with a 21st-century digital solution that is rapidly expanding even beyond African borders to places such as India.

How can we make sure that more young Africans take advantage of the opportunities presented by this golden age of design?

With the youngest population in the world, and currently the only one growing younger every day, one of Africa’s main challenges is its unemployed youth. What it takes is a mindshift among the continent’s young people to raise a generation of job creators not seekers, a deep-rooted belief that with the world’s knowledge and resources in their hands, and a community of like-minded individuals around them, they can be the designers of their own futures.

What is needed is threefold:

  1. A common challenge that gives purpose and direction and ensures the varied passions and energies of Africa’s young leaders are channelled for the benefit of a prosperous continent and all of its people. A challenge embodied through role models such as Obinna Ukwuani, who epitomises this spirit and the realm of possibility. Ukwuani embraced the responsibility bestowed upon him and used his time at MIT to set up Exposure Robotics, a summer programme teaching high school kids in Nigeria computer programming and engineering fundamentals through building and operating robots. After testing the model since 2011 he is now building an entire school dedicated to his venture.
  2. It takes resources that allow these entrepreneurs to swiftly move from idea to action, giving them courage and freedom to quickly iterate and scale their ventures into sustainable businesses. These resources include tangibles such as grants, capital or scholarships, but also intangibles such as trust, mentorship and encouragement. There is no doubt that Africa has all the resources it needs to overcome its most severe problems. What is needed is a concerted, strategic effort that is able to attract and maximise such investments.
  3. It requires filters to create a culture of action-oriented, determined and collaborative values nurturing Africa’s change-makers with only the most relevant information and resources necessary to advance their ventures. In times of an interconnected world and growing internet access across Africa, it becomes increasingly important to create spaces and tightly knit communities that ensure unnecessary information will not get in the way of those few individuals determined to embark on the courageous and risky entrepreneurial route of designing their own solutions to Africa’s challenges.

What is needed is a generation of young Africans with integrity, willing to take on the less-travelled road and do something hard over something efficient. A cadre of young risk takers for whom planning and making goes hand in hand, who are audacious enough to take the first step.

Matthias Reichwald is founding design and marketing director of the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance. In this capacity he has overseen HEA’s deliberate re-branding of African youth and entrepreneurship and created opportunities for design-minded Harambe entrepreneurs with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, MIT Media Lab, Wolff Olins and Smart Design. Matthias gained experience with African and global design and branding groups such as Pentagram, Interbrand and Brand Communications.