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Africa's Informal Product Designers

After reading Koos' inspiration about Colombia's informal economy, I wanted to learn more about informal economies and came across this interview with Steve Daniels, who spent time in Africa researching informal economies.
Steve Daniel's interview with Fast Company on the informal economy of Africa.

Steve Daniels spent some time in Africa researching informal economies, focusing on how informal craftsmen manufacture products with limited resources. He wrote a book on the subject entitled "Making Do".

Here are some highlights:

How did you become interested in innovation in Africa's informal sector?

Like many young designers, I’ve been passionate about technology to promote sustainable development. For a while I studied appropriate technology, a field that since the 1970s has sought to deliver life-saving and income-generating tools to communities throughout the developing world. However, countless accounts have shown that most projects don’t sustain themselves and don’t scale. That’s partly because those who design the technologies are so far removed from those who make, own, and use them. I took a trip to Kenya and Ghana to investigate how we might bridge this gap and quickly realized that Africa has a huge pool of untapped talent--the technologists of the informal economy. The informal economy comprises unregulated and unprotected, but legitimate microenterprises--more than 90 percent of non-agricultural employment in Kenya. Informal craftsmen, known as jua kali in Kenya, make their livelihoods by manufacturing products in the resource-constrained environment Westerners struggle so hard to adapt to. Their businesses thrive due to the complex networks among traders and producers. The indigenous talent of the jua kali will be essential to developing truly appropriate technologies and their networks the key to sustaining and scaling them. Making Do breaks down the skills and networks of the jua kali in order to understand the role craftsmen and collaborators like us might play in a unique form of industrialization for Africa. 

What would happen if Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the jua kali swapped places for a week? What would the two different groups of entrepreneurs find similar and different in each other's shoes?

Innovation in the informal business clusters of Africa and advanced clusters like the Silicon Valley look quite different, but both have lessons to teach each other. The kind of innovation we see in the informal economy, sometimes referred to as bootstrapping or bricolage, is incredibly resourceful and creative. The jua kali can truly make treasure out of trash, leaving no waste behind. The jua kali clusters usually comprise businesses of one to five employees, which might seem inefficient in comparison to Western integration, but their transactions are embedded in social relations. Transaction costs are significantly reduced by practices like resource sharing, loans, and apprenticeships, all of which occur among connected entrepreneurs. If the jua kali ran Silicon Valley, the cluster would be composed of much smaller, yet more flexible and cooperative, businesses that mimic the creative enterprises in attendance at Western Maker Faires. Despite its strengths, bootstrapping is an inherently survivalist strategy. Most jua kali do what it takes to get by, but don’t seek out high-growth strategies. That’s where a Silicon Valley culture can be really empowering. Jua kali can’t always afford to invest in new technologies or markets, and most are not accustomed to this practice. If Silicon Valley entrepreneurs took over clusters like Gikomba or Kamukunji in Nairobi, we’d see more consolidation of businesses, quality control, and product innovation—perhaps geared more towards capital-intensive export markets. However, these values don’t always translate well to the informal economy, where low-cost operations and deep relationships with customers make jua kali wares domestically accessible.

Mission #2 Life in South America


Join the conversation and post a comment.

James McBennett

July 03, 2011, 02:56AM
nice post!

Laci Videmsky

June 28, 2011, 15:56PM
Thanks for sharing this! I will pick up the book. Sounds right down my alley.

Megan Wimmer

June 27, 2011, 13:07PM
Great inspiration post Russell.

I think the key with people outside the impacted population helping develop a solution is to work hand in hand with those people in order to produce a sustainable solution. Too often the intention is good, but the manufacturing alone makes it infeasible.

Anne-Laure Fayard

June 24, 2011, 21:51PM
I really like Steve's idea of contrasting informal design with product design in Western / developed countries. I agree with many of the previous comments. I particularly like the fact that he highlights the creativity that emerges in "constrained environments" like Kenya. It reminds me of the current trend in outsourcing: outsourcing used to be based on having access to cheap labors and now in many cases, it is driven by accessing skilled labor.

Meena Kadri

June 23, 2011, 21:19PM
Great stuff, Russell! Steve totally rocks – he's a contributor on the REculture blog which I've been posting to for a while, which explores the post-comsumption economy of repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle by informal business: Lots of angles there of things which could be ripe for social business ventures! And so much to be inspired by from Steve's great insights into how the informal sector operates in Making Do.

Russell Jelinek

June 23, 2011, 21:34PM
Cool! Lots of inspiration at REculture.

Srinivasan Sankaranarayanan

June 22, 2011, 21:41PM
Great post Russell!

Sometimes designs from the developed world simply doesn't fit the developing world. Alternatively, you can see a number of inventors coming up with indigenous solutions to their own problems.

This post also reminds me of another article from Fast CoDesign.

It is about how an architect from Burkina Faso found a solution for the problems in his home country.

Russell Jelinek

June 22, 2011, 21:46PM
That was a great read - thanks for sharing.

Eric Ho

June 23, 2011, 14:51PM
As an architect, I love the work of Kere..

Here is another related project to your inspiration, the 'Honey Bee Network' by Anil Gupta from Indian Institute of Management, collecting people's inventions and intelligence:

Haiyan Zhang

June 23, 2011, 16:26PM
Great research and insight into how important local customisation and local design is. I wonder how we could use this as an opportunity to develop products and services, where we can centralise the design of a kit that then goes to different countries and can be subsequently customised for that culture.

Russell Jelinek

June 23, 2011, 16:30PM
That sounds like a fantastic idea, Haiyan.

Srinivasan Sankaranarayanan

June 24, 2011, 19:07PM
Haiyan, you have put forward an interesting concept.

But, sometimes simple customisation wouldn't suffice and serve the purpose completely. But, on the other hand, having a modular design might be useful.

What do you think?

Meena Kadri

June 24, 2011, 23:27PM
Srini, it might also be about providing a platform which attracts and amplifies local entrepreneurs and solutions in the way that Maker Faire Africa does: This speaks to Haiyan's suggestion above that a kit might be helpful for folks who want to run this kind of platform in other places. So many great possibilities in what's been raised on this Inspiration by Russell and all of you in the discussion here! Looking forward to what this conversation might spark in the upcoming Concepting phase...

Vincent Cheng

June 22, 2011, 20:20PM
Enlightening excerpt =)
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