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18 January 2022

Sustainable design from Africa - Interview


by ndion

Mugendi M'Rithaa is an industrial designer, professor and educator from Kenya. He has travelled, worked, and taught accross the globe, and was the first African President of the World Design Organisation (WDO). Ndion talked with him about design, sustainability and what design from Africa can uniquely contribute.

© Mugendi M’Rithaa

Prof. M’Rithaa, how do you define the role and importance of design? And are there trends or features that connect design across Africa?
I describe myself as someone who is passionate about Africa, design, and innovation. Design in Africa has its roots in the craft traditions but has lately found the greatest expression through music and fashion and increasingly through diverse products.
But beyond that, design is starting to embrace other fields, including industrial design, graphic design, and so on. One cannot really narrow something as African design. There are certain elements I argue that are common, but the idea of African design is not really realistic.
What role does design education play? Is it, too, particular to different regions and cultures?
That is an interesting question. Because much of design, if we are honest, historically grew out of Europe. Specifically, the word design coming out of Latin, and the schools of design that have been raised in especially the German Bauhaus, and then thereafter the Ulm School of Design. Those are the very prominent ones that we have followed in much of Africa, also because of the colonial history of Africa.
The Anglophone part of Africa had a very British leaning kind of education in design, and the Francophone, which is mainly Western Africa, had a very French leaning design tradition. But if you distil the core elements, they are very similar. Design as a modern profession is consistent whether you are in Asia or in Africa or in Europe. Maybe the difference is in the infrastructure that one has available to train future designers with. But the core tools, the core elements, and principles of design, are common right across the continent.
In one of your presentations, you highlight the resourcefulness of people to reuse and repurpose objects to suit their needs. Is this approach to materials uniquely African, or rather a result of economic necessity?
Philosophically, Africans are very biophilic, they are very friendly towards nature. So, the idea of zero waste is something that we are raised to appreciate, knowing that whether it is a tree or fruit or food, everything is used.
I think the movement around sustainability has showcased globally that this kind of thinking is actually what the world needs. And it has rewarded those designers who have already started exploring the recycling or the reuse of materials. Whether it is, for example, the recycling of tires and turning them into coffee tables or cushions: Sustainability has now been elevated from a peripheral or marginal kind of economic activity to something that is deeply philosophical and very relevant to the conversations we have around sustainability and the need to be more conscious of waste.
Is this traditional affinity to sustainability an opportunity for Africa to benefit economically from the paradigm shift the world experiences right now?
Africa has traditionally viewed resources as finite and therefore always tried to maximize utility. The parallel development in recycling, upcycling, shifting from a cradle to grave mentality to cradle to cradle, and second life in product design, all those have definitely supported that vision. Additionally, I often argue that if necessity is the mother of invention, then surely Africa should be a super power in innovation.
And I think Africa often lacks creative confidence, because it does not realize that what it does sustainably by default, could become sustainable by design. The challenge for professional designers and design educators is to encourage the people of Africa to embrace sustainability with confidence, and not feel apologetic, saying that we have few materials, that is why we are doing sustainable things, but to say “We care about our planet and that is why we want to support sustainable design!”.
Recycling should not only be about materials that come out of industrial production, it could also come out of indigenous knowledge systems as well as traditional and local knowledge.

“We care about our planet and that is why we want to support sustainable design!”

— Mugendi M’Rithaa

Are these already being developed into products?
Yes. For example, there is this a natural material known as Barkcloth, which is found in Kenya and also Uganda. It is made from the bark of a unique tree that is found indigenously in these parts. And it keeps regenerating and producing a very unique type of cloth that can create all kinds of products and dresses and so on. When we elevate that product, which has been known by our ancestors and give it a fresh and modern interpretation, even our own people celebrate that much more, because they realize that there is a lot of richness that exists.
Are there interesting examples in other fields as well?
What is beautiful about African design is a concept by a friend from Italy, Professor Ezio Manzini, who often speaks about the concept of leapfrogging. And what is unique about African design is the potential for leapfrogging. So, moving from the traditional product design to the digital space, there are a lot of examples of digital applications, such as M-Pesa. Initially, it was developed by Safaricom, which is the largest internet and mobile phone provider in Kenya. M-Pesa basically means mobile money; “Pesa” means money, “M” is for mobile. It then was tested in other parts of Africa as well as in India. There is also Hello Paisa in South Africa, that is now found in many other parts of the world, but it originated in Kenya.
M-Pesa essentially started on trust, because Kenyans used to send money to their relatives in the village. They would buy goods and send them to that shopkeeper, and the shopkeeper would give cash to their relatives. The currency of exchange is actually not money, it is trust. And so, building on trust as a currency of exchange, the system evolved naturally out of something from a practice that Kenyans already had been doing before a formal platform was created.
There is also M-Tiba, a financial health platform. Are they related?
It is literally the same mobile kind of infrastructure, but it looks at health services and not so much financial services. There is also M-Kopa, which is a service that allows people to borrow small amounts of money to invest say in solar energy. So, there is a lot of spinoffs. What M-Pesa did, it revealed that you did not need a smartphone to do business. You could use a very basic mobile phone, even one without a touch screen, all the way to smartphones. Now there have been apps developed, which work with smart devices as well as computers connected to the internet. The versatility of the platform is what opened up the possibilities for all the other services that have come on board.
With so many digital developments originating from Kenya, is the country a trailblazer for information technology in Africa?
It is one of the major hubs. There is another hub in Accra in Ghana, another one in Cairo in Egypt, and also in Cape Town in South Africa. So, there is a number of interesting hubs, and Nairobi happens to be one of them. The government has also recognized the significance of the innovative mindset of most Kenyans.
The Konza Technopolis, a massive industrial tech park, is built as the “Silicon Savannah”. It is bringing together large companies from even outside of Kenya, from Korea, South Korea, and from China, and all these other players from the IT sector to develop solutions for the future of this continent.

The Konza Technopolis

© Konza Technopolis

What other innovation success stories are there that people in Europe and Germany should know about?
One unique example is an electric bus that has been developed in Uganda. They use solar energy to charge them at different stations. There is also an example of a drone port in Kigali, Rwanda, where the first drone port in the world was developed to deliver medical packages and parcels to the rural parts of Rwanda.
Rwanda is a very hilly country, and with these drone ports, they are able to deliver critical medications, even blood for transfusions, to any part of the country within about 17 minutes. So, these are nice examples of leapfrogging in Africa. There is also a robotics network operating in Accra in Ghana, where they have been developing 10 dollar robots which can be used in agricultural and other settings.
Cape Town had already developed an electric vehicle that was already prototyped back in 2014. It was called the Optimal Energy Joule, named after the unit of energy. Unfortunately did not get to commercialization. But now Uganda has developed its own model, the Kiira, which got government financing. Buses are actually being produced for export to other parts of Africa.
A drawback of the growing urbanisation all around the globe is that the build environment is one of the greatest sources of pollution. How is this taken into account?
Where governments have proper planning and the infrastructure is done in an inclusive manner, it can mitigate some of the challenges. Again, I go back to the concept of leapfrogging, where Europe took many centuries to get to the level of infrastructure it now has. In Africa, the biggest challenge we have are informal settlements in cities, which are not following the building bylaws.

Kiira EV in Kampala

Kiira EV in Kampala. Photo: Allmuh. Published by Wikimedia Commons.
Distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


Distributed renewable energy, electric vehicles within city limits, public transport as opposed to personal transport are a better way to go and also reduce pollution. Important is also the way in which we manage waste, the landfills. The collection of different materials and recycling at the source helps. Notwithstanding, because Africa is a large place with 55 countries and 1.3 billion people, some places are getting there quicker than others.
Also, through the Africa Union there is the NEPAD, a peer driven mechanism where countries are trying to learn from each other their best practices. There is a challenge, no doubt about that. Particularly around providing adequate housing for a very young and very rapidly growing population. So, housing is the biggest challenge we have, and then also creating sufficient transportation, which has also to be sustainable at the same time.
Along with her population, the markets will grow as well. What does this mean for African design, both regionally and in general?
It is a good thing. The 21st century is actually the age of design in my view, because more than half of humanity now lives in cities. The role of design is going to become even more important going forward. Another thing is in the fourth industrial revolution and the solutions that come with that kind of thinking.
Because Germany, the US, and China are leaders in that area, Germany could play a very important role in sharing some of its knowledge and some of its technological knowhow with African communities that seek to use fourth industrial revolution thinking with design. And that is a very exciting possibility: how we can use big data to help mitigate climate change, how to improve health, even mental health, which has been affected quite seriously because of the COVID pandemic.
I am impressed with the way Germany has embraced the green technologies, particularly wind energy. I am impressed with the public transport systems, which I feel are world class and worthy of emulation. I would like to encourage a lot more exchange, particularly creative ideas and design solutions that can be shared between Africa and Germany and other countries of good will.
Thank you very much!


The interview was conducted by our partner organisation ndion

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