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.
Having a PhD in design, MSc in entrepreneurship and BA in design, she is currently undertaking research on locally available materials to support affordable housing in Kenya. As a patron of the Design Kenya Society, Lilac Osanjo has been a judge in many design competitions both locally and on the international stage.
We are very happy to have been able to talk to Prof Dr Osanjo about African design and design as a tool for change.
Interview by Jan Hellstern
Ms Osanjo, how would you define African design?
African design is any design that uses Africa as a reference point. It could be as simple as a dot, it could be a pattern. In Africa we have a lot of stories around even simple patterns. It might be used by my forefathers, it may be used by my community – any design that is referenced from the African continent is African design, including persons. If I design, my design can be qualified as African design. If I use African raw materials, my design can also be qualified as African design.
Recently you stated: »Africa - it is our time now!« Why now and what makes this time so special?
We are trying to mobilize African designers to talk about design from an African perspective. Looking at the history of art and design, even people like Picasso and Braque were influenced in some way by the African connections they had at that point in Paris. African designers are talking about Bauhaus, which is not bad, but they also need to talk about the Hemba sculptures, which should be their point of reference to discuss modern art and design. We want to tell the same story but from the African perspective, as a contribution to our understanding of art and design.
The Pan African Design Institute (PADI) is adopting to the Montreal World Design Declaration to improve the quality of life for all and to protect our environment for future generations. Can design be a tool of change? And what is Kenya’s part in this?
Design is not only a tool of change – design should be the driver of the change, showing the direction. Many times we have been told that before design happens, no product happens.
But from the PADI perspective, we are mobilizing African designers and like-minded people to look at design from an African point of view solving Africa's problems. Africa needs to look at itself first. Strengthen itself, package itself, brand itself and then present itself to the world. We have solutions in Africa; solutions that can save the world, can save the environment and can save our people.
Would you say that African governments nowadays recognize design as a tool more than they did, before?
In my opinion: yes. My department at the University of Nairobi is really engaging with the government. We have government projects looking at sustainable housing and alternative materials. Working together we have more opportunities to share information from research and get more attention. So growth starts in collaboration with our governments.
Being a young Kenyan designer working on my dream to change the world, what are my options?
The University of Nairobi is the oldest Kenyan university with a design school. Today there are about fifteen universities teaching different forms of design. Some are specializing in fashion, some in graphics, others do both. There are also mid-level colleges that grant diplomas and certificates.
One the most interesting options however is given by the Kenyan National Qualifications Authority, which is working with the informal learning systems. If you want to be equal to the formal education system, but you have not attended university, the industry can give you a test. They can assess you and put you at the job scale as a university graduate, depending on your skill levels and your exposure. Even if you have left school at grade nine and have worked in the industry for so long, they will put you back into the formal system.
So if you want to pursue design, you can work in the industry and at some point go to the Kenyan National Qualifications Authority to take a test and maybe leave with a diploma. Like that you are able to achieve a certification. You don’t have to feel useless, because you can pursue your dreams and proceed at whatever level.
Being a designer also has a critical side to it: Design creates waste. Every item designed will end up as garbage sooner or later. As a sign of national awareness, Kenya has started banning plastic bags from the streets. Did design support this campaign in any significant way?
The significance is very small. To the African lifestyle, the awareness of plastic being waste is very foreign. Only a couple of years ago it wasn't there at all. It's part of this development that we are saying: »Designers stop and think!«. We have a lot of raw materials that are sustainable, which can make baskets and even other products for containment. If the problem is containment – what other solutions can be found in tune with our environment? That is the area of research design. Research is now going into the alternatives and the sustainable.
Using plastic bags or bottles is just taking the easy route out. The plastic bottle is there – why not using it? This is just a lack of the thought process in our system. People need to look at the long term effects. It is not enough to say: »Look, this plastic is not acceptable!«
Isn’t that a process of generations? And if so, how far has Africa come in that process?
We want to leapfrog and not wait for two generations. Europe has been through that cycle. Now, let Africa learn from Europe so that we do not need another two cycles going through the same experience.
We appreciate our global networks feeding us with information. That is the benefit we are getting from international collaborations and collaborations among African countries – sharing stories of effects, so that we can pick up the good ones and avoid the bad ones or develop alternatives early.
In a second blog article, we will have a closer look on the growing global awareness for waste and sustainability and how design can help to change a mindset.
We would like to thank Prof Dr Lilac Osanjo for the interview!