Blog articles

17 October 2022

Design is a problem-solving tool


by German Design Museum Foundation

Text by Kyesubire Greigg
I travelled to the western part of Kenya for a burial; as we drove through the countryside, I noticed the houses. I was perplexed about the construction and why some houses had already collapsed or were halfway to collapsing. The driver noticed my curiosity and sparked an interesting conversation and impromptu cultural class.

He pointed out the polygamous homes by the number of houses in the compound and the arrangement. He identified the homes of the wives and houses for adult sons. I am from a largely monogamous community because of our faith so imagine my fascination because I did not have this insight. It was fascinating to learn that the broken-down houses belonged to wives who had died and their children had moved out of the home. However, the disrepair was not a sign of carelessness; but rather a way of mourning. Imagine that.

The different house styles defined who lived where and their positioning relative to the gate and main house determined seniority and importance. Co-wives had identical houses with only the age of the house as s sign of who came first.

Let me be clear that not every Afrikan home or community is polygamous. However, driving through this polygamous one showed me how much I had to learn about people in my neighbourhood, which subsequently affected how I dealt with them.

Design is a principal tool in our lives.

Whereas our fore parents may not have known the intricate tools or theories of modern design, they used many design ideas and tools in their lives. Once I understood the concepts, they were visible all around me. I had to go back to my roots and look at our design elements.

In Afrikan communities, we had rounded corners, not angles and sharp corners. The homes were round or oval huts with grass thatched roofs. The kitchen was often in the centre and had a gap in the canopy above the fire to let out the smoke. The women slept with the little ones around the doused fire with the smallest nearer the warmth and the older ones on the edges, yet there were few deaths by carbon monoxide poisoning. The men had their own homes whereas the boys had huts nearer the gate to protect the family and possessions from intruders. The advent of houses with sharp corners and separate rooms was a more modern construct.

It took deep personal reflection and honest conversations for me to see how many of the modern concepts were already a part of our lives as Afrikan people long before ‘civilisation’ arrived on our doorsteps. Let me highlight a few:

  1. Circularity:
    This is about minimising waste based on the concept of reducing, reusing and recycling as much as we can in daily life. I remember watching my grandparents using manure from the bulls that pulled the carts and the chickens for the macadamia trees and vegetables. The macadamia shells were then used for fuel as sisal from a neighbour was processed and dyed into a string to make baskets. My other relatives grew bananas for food, used the leaves for cooking and the stem for animal feed, making paper and bark cloth. When clothes wore out, they were used as fuel to reduce tree cutting. Regarding food, different people in the community grew various food items and everyone worked together to rotate the crop and maintain the soil integrity. They did not call it circularity, but they practised it at every turn and with every breath.
  2. Sustainable living:
    A friend told the story of an elderly lady in a relatively dry part of Ukambani in Eastern Kenya whose farm always produced food in and out of season. The locals couldn’t figure out what she did and called it witchcraft, but when asked, they found she was using the sustainable farming practices she had learnt as a little girl. She had learnt techniques to conserve water and which crops to grow in the dry season. She was one of the few who still knew them. In a 2017 TED Talk, Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu explained the tassa irrigation method used for centuries in Niger. She referenced an experiment using similar quantities of millet on two plots of land with conventional irrigation on one and tassa irrigation on the other. The piece with tassa yielded 553kg per hectare against 15kg on the regular irrigation one. How come no one had ever taught that in modern learning institutions?
  3. Collaboration:
    We have a common saying that "it takes a village to raise a child." Our communities never let a child wander away or fall. It was common practice to help each other complete farm chores and thus ensure that everyone was ready to plant, weed and harvest. Most of this was lost with the advent of modernism because the people were more self and community-focused.
  4. Grounding:
    We mostly worked outdoors and walked barefoot quite often until the advent of modernity with shoes and streets of asphalt that attract and retain heat. We used everything on the farm or homestead with little to no waste. Those of us raised urban did not have this luxury to see life with all its intricacies because we believed that life is better in the urban setting than in the earthy way our fore parents lived.

These are a few examples of ‘modern approaches to life’ that have been a part of our fabric for centuries though they are largely undocumented. I admit that some of our younger, modern or urban citizens are unaware of these realities yet that does not negate their existence. I highlight these to say that before it is anyone says that Afrikans are in desperate need to learn these things, why not come and listen to what we know and have them learn from and with us?

For so long, the perceived knowledge gap on the continent meant that we are behind the western world, but is it true? Could it be that the knowledge gap is two-way? Is it that the Afrikans have hidden their knowledge for so long that people do not even know we know it? Might it be that we used and appropriated modern concepts, actively used design thinking and others without calling them that? Maybe we have practiced community centered design for millennia and not documented it in writing, so no one knows? Could it be that there are things we can teach the world about design and life integration that few people know we know?

Design is a problem-solving tool; Afrika has used it to solve her problems for a long time. Granted, we have different ways of creating solutions, but we are solving our problems in ways that work for us and are replicable on the continent. I propose that we adopt a more holistic approach to design that encourages keen listening across borders to foster long-term learning and audience engagement as the Design Networking Hub has begun to do. The German and Kenyan teams have learnt significant lessons from and with each other.

To succeed in global design, let us receive, acknowledge, accept and plan to implement design opinions and perspectives from different quarters. We must also acknowledge them as valid and create room for expression and use to assist the effective implementation of relevant, lasting, home-grown solutions that will change the lives of all parties involved.

Kyesubire Greigg is the Founder and lead storyteller at Akiko Stories, a boutique communications business, The sitting President of the SME Founders Association, supports the Design Kenya Society with Communications and Logistics, a member of several boards, an SME mobiliser, mentor, certified IFC LPI trainer and a member of the Organisation of Women in International Trade (OWIT) in Nairobi and International.

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