Design and innovation in Africa - aid or trade?

13th March 2015

Design and innovation in Africa - aid or trade?

First and foremost, let’s get Comic Relief out of the way, as this is Red Nose day, and the inspiration behind this post. Comic Relief does amazing work in supporting communities and individuals in many developing countries, helping thousands of people to live safer, more fulfilling lives. The juxtaposition of side-splitting comedy followed by gut-wrenching misery does, however, leave me feeling just a little manipulated.

So what? If it gets thousands of people to donate money to genuinely worthwhile causes, does it matter if they’re being emotionally played? Having lived in Sierra Leone for four years and worked on development projects in several other countries in Africa and Asia, I think it does.

The real hardship and misery that affects many thousands of people in Africa deserves our total support, but this one dimensional view distorts our understanding of the entire continent. We don’t see enough of the creativity and innovation that is so common in many African countries. Whether it is the technological leap represented by M-pesa, the electronic payment method used in Kenya, or grass roots developments like the windmills developed by William Kamkwamba in Malawi, Innovation is alive and well in Africa. For fifteen more examples, have a look at this article.

Design is also experiencing something of a revolution in many African countries. Moving away from the stereotypical masks and carvings, designers are now creating exciting new contemporary products, typified by websites like Design Africa and producers like Tekura in Ghana. These products are a world away from the traditional carvings we’re used to seeing in charity catalogues at Christmas, and represent African culture that is exciting and confidant. New African design is creating products that we buy, not because we think we should, but because we want them.

Relief projects provide vital support, but we need a breadth of vision that can also see the positive developments in African culture and technology. The innovation and creativity to be found in Africa is exciting and, in some cases, way ahead of so-called developed countries. We need to support it by seeking out great products and opportunities to invest in micro funding programmes like Zidisha. Aid is necessary, but for real long term economic development and social justice, Africa needs more fair trade. 

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