Why Designers Need To Stop Feeling Sorry For Africa

This article from Co.DESIGN although couched in the terminology of neo-liberal capitalism and  written from the perspective of extracting value from the worlds poorest people, the recognition that there is a creativity and resourcefulness in African’s diverse people that is often surprising in its adoption of technology and it’s ability to utilize the technology of commercial exploitation in novel ways which are subsequently subsumed by the purveyors of this technology e.g.How the developing world is using cellphone technology to change lives. This, together with the appreciation of the patronizing tone of much of the coverage given to such innovation is being given credit, which is a step towards treating all  people as of equal value, regardless  their origin or bank account or lack of one.

A different  exploration or alternative view is given by Abdoumaliq Simone  in his introduction to URBAN AFRICA: Changing Contours of Survival in the City

 “Urban Africans have long made lives that have worked. There has been  an astute capacity to use thickening fields of social relations… to make city life viable. …..It  emphasizes the resilience and resourcefulness displayed by African Cities .. the ways in which urban life is concretized across the region are thus seen not as history or as a series of policies gone wrong; rather we wish to emphasize the determination of  urban Africans to find their own way.”


Earlier this year, the Cooper-Hewitt wrapped up “Design with the Other 90%: Cities,” the second in a series of exhibitions intended to demonstrate how design can address the world’s most critical issues. This time around, the focus was on the challenges created by rapid urban growth in informal settlements. Some highlights were Digital Drum in Kampala, Uganda, a solar-powered information access point made from two durable, low-cost oil drums welded together, rugged keyboards, solar panels, and low-power tablets; a large-scale oven that uses trash as fuel to power a communal cooking facility in Kibera, Nairobi; and M-Pesa, a money-transfer service that enables urban migrants in Kenya to send money back to their villages via a mobile device.

The designers represented were local. But locals aren’t leading the pack when it comes to designing products for the bottom of the pyramid. Examples of Western efforts to care for the other 90% are many: Social entrepreneurship has grown into a full-fledged program at Harvard,Forbes started a list of the top 30 social entrepreneurs last year, and a host of major design studios have established nonprofit initiatives, including IDEO and Fuseproject. The latter designed MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop, with the goal of creating an educational project for poor schoolchildren, rather than a cheap laptop for the masses.

It is no wonder that these projects have gained massive interest, since bottom-of-the-pyramid markets–those in the lowest global income band (with average household incomes below $1,500 a year)–provide a tantalizing market opportunity. In his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, the Wharton Business School professor C. K. Prahalad argues that businesses can combat poverty and turn a profit at the same time.

But the road to hell may well be paved with good intentions. There clearly is a bottom-of-the-pyramid market, but linking it to “aid culture”–a non-market-driven-culture–detracts from the entrepreneurial opportunity. And correlating hunger, AIDS, malaria, poverty, and illiteracy with Africa perpetuates a stereotype that is far from the optimistic, go-get-it-attitude and ambition that we’ve encountered when traveling in Africa. Take, for instance, the title of this Harvard report: “HIV/AIDS and Business in Africa and Asia: A Guide to Partnerships.”

Obviously, HIV/AIDS is an issue to be addressed, but confusing and pairing regions with issues make them synonymous in the public eye. How does “Obesity/Diabetes and Business in North America: A Guide to Partnerships” sound? To us, it sounds funny, but it doesn’t sound conducive to business. How would American businesses react to foreign customers who expressed pity for them at large? I bet that seeing foreign news headlines like “Give America a Chance: Support the Fat and Illiterate” would get tiring after a while. That is what Africans experience over and over again–plus foreign-media-dominated news about Africa to the outside world.

There are many exceptions, of course. But a disappointingly big part of them share the patronizing and generalist perspectives on Africa. One of us watched William Kamkwamba, a young Malawian who built windmills to power his parts of his village, speak at a TED conference in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2007. What was so remarkable about him was his genuinely humble attitude, resisting moderator Chris Anderson’s prompts to elaborate on his own accomplishments. “I just did it” was Kamkwamba’s typical response. He is, by any standard, a great guy, but his story is now woven into this other narrative of Africa–the patronizing Western assumption that Africans are up against insurmountable odds and ethnological challenges.