Prof Dr Lilac Osanjo is the Director of The School of the Arts and Design at the University of Nairobi. Since many years she has been developing projects around design and product development and supporting Kenyan enterprises and start ups. As an executive council member of the Kenyan Fashion Council, Prof Dr Osanjo is also an expert for the Kenyan textile industry.
We talked about some of the most vibrant subjects such as waste, renewable ressources, the use of natural ressources and how design can help to change a mindset.
Interview by Jan Hellstern
Ms Osanjo, one of the most vivid spots of trading in Nairobi is the market of Gikomba where you can find everything from second hand clothing to sofas. Are Gikomba customers willing to pay for sustainability or are they rather looking for the cheapest item?
The best sofas in Kenya are coming from Gikomba. But the worst are coming from there, too. We are fighting for basic and recognized standards. I have proposed to the ministry and the manufacturers to create an information center. A spot where artisans can learn about new materials, the good wood, the manufacturing processes and even get some training from our partners from other countries. That would create a benchmark for quality. We cannot afford bad sofas any longer, they affect our health and they also affect pollution. The growth of our landfills with useless products has to stop.
Another issue in Gikomba is the huge amount of second hand clothes shipped from Europe. How does these endless piles of used clothes affect local traders and designers?
The influx of the second hand clothes into Kenya surely affects the growth of the fashion industry. As a member of the Kenyan Fashion Council executive board, I am trying to work with the government to lower the cost of local production so that it's more affordable for a bigger majority of people. We also try to limit what can come in second hand. It is a big problem and it is really choking the textile industry.
All the shipping takes off in Europe – is there something that could be done from the European side to support your efforts?
Yes there is. When you get a pile of second hand clothes at Gikomba two thirds are useless. You get one sock here, but you can’t find another one. Upcycling could be one of the ways of absorbing this problem. Kenya‘s technology levels in terms of upcycling and recycling are still a bit low.
Our government already banned underwear like bras and panties. We are becoming more stringent and we are working together with the importers. It is very important to have them also sensitised.
Looking at the global goal to reduce waste – how could design change the mindset of people working in Gikomba?
You have to walk through Gikomba and meet the people there. You cannot talk on TV nor issue books or newspapers. You need to listen to them. Design thinking, human centered design! They need to be approached in their language. You have to domesticate design and you have to domesticate these climate change issues and make them understand. And then they will adapt. Very slowly, but yes, they will adapt.
Some big companies started a turnaround in terms of value and production. A trend that could be called »built to last«. Is that something you also can see happening in Kenya or the African industry?
Yes, here it is mostly about maintenance. Instead of throwing away, you just replace a small part and the machinery continues to function. Generally it is about continuously using what you have rather than keeping on buying obsolete electronics.
We held a few seminars with bigger and smaller manufacturers to sensitise them making products that do not require to be thrown away as the whole thing. The manufacturers need to be sensitive for the afterlife and for the repairs of the products they produce.
Jamhuri Wear is a big brand in Africa. The Kenyan brand is committed to a long lasting sustainable impact. Looking at clothes made from tree barks, do you think that this revival of traditional manufacturing could be an example for a global change of seasons?
Jamhuri Wear uses naturally dyed leather and baobab fibre hand dyed and woven into a hardwearing textile for a range of bags. I have a lot of faith in Jamhuri Wear using Baobab trees and I also have a lot of faith in Sara Nakisanze who is using bark cloth. They might be small but they define the future of our design. They are renewable. Jamhuri Wear harvests the Baobab tree within their environment and the tree renews itself. And he is employing almost 300 women within their localities.
Same goes for Sara Nakisanze using the bark cloth. Every two years the tree bark gives you three to four square meters of material to be used for products. That is the best way to define African design.
Would you say that this design can effectively support campaigns for sustainability in a new and different way?
Yes! The rural urban influx of job seekers is what now brings the cities to congestion. To stop this, you must keep these people in their rurale environments. If you can give them a life at their village – money and a source of livelihood – they are happy. Thus we get a very sustainable cycle and system. As a global commercial venture I'm not sure. But when I look at the potential we have in basketry and in other products, it might just have a real contribution to our GDP.
At the beginning of the 21st century we all have to be very careful and efficient with the use of natural resources. How is Kenya treating its national resources?
Kenya, like the rest of Africa, has got a lot of raw materials. Many of these are exported in their raw forms. But that means denying the country and the producers a significant part of a very much needed income.
Kenya for example sends out tons of tea all over the world. This tea is used to produce other flavours and then imported back in, where the Kenyans buy it at a more expensive price. We have been working with tea farmers towards value addition locally, so that they can package straight for the supermarket's abroad and get more money out of their products. We very urgently need a technology upgrade and innovations. We need to strengthen the capacity of our country and our manufacturers to produce better and more.
So a technical upgrade would be an efficient step towards real fair trade?
Looking at the tea, it is too expensive to produce these packages here presently. Kenya can produce them in China. We will give them the design and they will produce it, because they are cheaper and more efficient.
We need to get a little bit more of this cake. We cannot just be sending natural resources like that. Kenya, like the rest of Africa, depends on its natural resources. That is what we have. Also looking at the skins – ostrich skin, livestock skin, crocodile skins – they are shipped abroad, being fabricated into very expensive handbags. But we gain very little, too little.
Talking about technical upgrades: The access to energy can contribute to reduce poverty and increase the quality of life. Are there many areas in Kenya that need a remote energy system? And how does design support life in remote areas?
In Kenya there is no remote area that cannot be connected to the energy infrastructure. On the other hand there is a high dependence on electricity, which now needs to come down drastically. In terms of communication the infrastructure is quite good. Universities like mine offer online classes across the country and are trying to connect the whole country.
There is a very concerted effort to harvest more solar energy. We have the sun 365 days a year. The energy sector is receiving a lot of support from the government, whether it is solar energy, geothermal or wind.
From a design point of view, we have especially been making a lot of research and efforts in terms of cooking energy. The briquettes for simple households. People can make them from their homes for individual consumption.
Generally, we are trying to keep the rural people happy in their areas having access to all the services they would have in bigger cities.
We would like to thank Prof Dr Lilac Osanjo for the interview!