“I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.” Kwame Nkurumah
Africa is comprised of 54 independent states. Within every country, there are tribes and within every tribe there are ethnic groups and sub-ethnic groups. This forms a vibrant tapestry of unique cultures scattered across the continent.
With a population of approximately 1.2 billion people, Africa is an eclectic fusion of cultural and linguistic diversification. It is a melting pot that has been heavily influenced by customs, traditions, arts, religion, government and economic systems. Empathizing by understanding the culture of the people plays a vital role in developing appropriate human-centred designs.
Cultural norms and social biases are challenges that designers, engineers and entrepreneurs face while working in developing contexts. In Africa, traditions and certain practices are ingrained in us right from childhood. These factors unconsciously influence our daily decisions.
Appreciation and understanding of community ethnography, behavioral patterns and science are key tools to inform a designer’s research and enable them to develop suitable user-centered designs.
Along your design journey in Africa, you will encounter different challenges and opportunities. Here are 5 factors to consider:
1. Red Tape
Bureaucracy in Africa is rampant and hinders development. In fact, the World Bank reported that economies in Sub-Saharan Africa have an average ranking, on the ease of doing business, of 143.
Before attaining ratification for any process, the necessary documents will pass through many hands before receiving the final approval. Here, the infamous ‘official stamp’ is mightier than the sword, for it is the humble stamp that dictates most approvals. These inefficient processes greatly affect lead times and hence project costs. Therefore, business regulations are in dire need of streamlining.
For innovators, being aware of such barriers is crucial prior to beginning the design process otherwise you may never make it passed the ideate stage. Carry out thorough research on the policies and regulations of the country of interest. A visit to relevant public offices is best to avoid the risk of unanswered calls and emails.
Most Africans have been brought up in religious homes and it plays a major role in our daily lives.
Our faith governs how we relate to one another, it informs some of the policies and laws in different countries and it also dictates what is televised and published.
As a designer if you decide to immerse yourself into a particular community, be open-minded enough to take part in their practices. Utilize the insights obtained to develop a solution that is in line with the community’s beliefs. Remember, the whole point is to relate and empathize with the people, therefore, assimilate.
In some African countries, corruption is deemed the norm. Greasing someone’s palm under the guise of a ‘facilitation fee’ is common. But different African countries face varying degrees of corruption.
According to the Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, Botswana (35), Cape Verde (38), Mauritius (50) and Rwanda (50), scored well, while a total of 40 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa ranked above 100.
As a maker, possessing the proper street smarts can be quite helpful especially when sourcing for materials. You could be swindled by a person purporting to be a supplier or that person may sell you counterfeit products. Therefore a lot of groundwork needs to be done in order to connect with the right suppliers who will provide quality and genuine products.
My personal opinion is that Africans are introverted. At an early age, it is hammered into us that children are not meant to be seen or heard. We are afraid to speak out or even make mistakes because of fear of the repercussions. Some of us grow out of this but others never quite shake off that mentality and carry it along with them into adulthood.
When conducting research, either through interviews or questionnaires you may encounter people who are not very receptive or responsive to your questions. The best way to mitigate this situation is to make your subject feel as comfortable as possible. Explain in detail what you are trying to achieve and how the process is going to be carried out. Displaying some tangible proof of the work you are doing or some form of identification can come in handy.
5. Gender roles
In traditional African society, women are the homemakers and are expected to be subservient to their husbands while the men are considered the providers, the decision makers and leaders of the society.
However there are varying gender roles depending on the community, for example, the matrilineal society of the Akan in Ghana. Furthermore, fathers that belong to the Akar in Central Africa are as hands-on in parenting as the women!
Gender roles definitely affect your design process. It can be the factor that determines your user and it also affects how or if said user interacts with your product.
In conclusion, these circumstances do bring out some interesting constraints during the design process. Africa is too wild and untamed to fit into a generic box. There is no cookie cutter method or general set of rules and guidelines when it comes to designing for Africa. But ultimately, as designers, engineers and entrepreneurs, such challenges are the sparks needed to create innovative solutions.