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Africa's Informal Economy Revealed

New book synthesizes activities of informal product designers.

African chip cutters

Steve Daniels, the founder of A Better World By Design and co-creator of Maker Faire Rhode Island, just published a book, Making Do, based on his research on informal economies in Africa. The shocker? He just graduated from college this year and is 21 years old. Here's how one youngin' is making inroads in the humanitarian design field.

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.

Tell me about Maker Faire and why you decided to launch your book there. The event started in Africa and now you're bringing it to Rhode Island?

The Maker Faire is a celebration of do-it-yourself culture. Founded by Make Magazine, the Faires are attended by inventors, hobbyists, and artists passionate about their craft and promote an open culture around technology that empowers individuals. The first event in California might have seemed like giant sprawling science fair, but as the event moved to new locations it took on new meanings. In Africa the event connects artisans in an attempt to move the continent into a grassroots industrial era. In Rhode Island the Maker Faire heralds the transition from a postindustrial slump to a bustling creative economy. Because of the transnational ties being formed among global makers, the same principles are being contextualized to different societies, each at its own stage in the development process. The Maker Faire Rhode Island is run by an organization I helped found called Revolution x Design, and in an attempt to generate more cross-cultural dialogue I’ll be launching Making Do jointly at the Maker Faire Rhode Island in Providence and Maker Faire Africa in Nairobi—both set for the weekend of August 28.

Humanitarian design and bottom of the pyramid design are buzz topics right now. What new light does Making Do shed on such topics?

It’s really exciting that engineers and designers are applying their talents to the social realm, but this can’t be done blindly. Here at Fast Company, Bruce Nussbaum recently called humanitarian design "the new imperialism" because Western technologists are putting themselves in a position to shape the development of communities around the world. NGO workers have been struggling with the challenges of community empowerment for half a century, and designers must understand that their product won’t create meaningful social change unless all of the stakeholders are included in the development process. Western designers know well the value of user input, but the manufacturers of the product are equally valuable. Making a product for the African market isn’t as easy as shipping off CAD files to China; the makers of the product must be included in the design process from the start. Only the jua kali know how to make a product in a way that leverages local resources and networks, and including them in the process means that the product will be produced and distributed in a sustainable and scalable way. Critical cross-cultural discussions are still needed to determine the best strategies for implementation of technologies, and fora like the Better World by Design conference at Brown and RISD encourage this dialogue. As impactful as a single product can be—as demonstrated by various water pumps and cook stoves—the most powerful social change will come from continuous technological learning by indigenous innovators. By transferring skills and resources instead of hard technology, we can empower them to solve the most pressing problems faced by their local market. This is where movements like the Maker Faire come into play.

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.

Lastly, since you're still quite young, what's ahead for you on this path of social design work?

In addition to mechanical technologies, I’ve always been interested in digital interface design and ICT, which if developed and implemented appropriately can remove barriers in the developing world caused by inadequate physical infrastructure. Imagine how trade would change in the informal economy if everyone had access to Craigslist or how community health might improve if diagnosis could be done via mobile phone rather than at the clinic miles away. That’s why I’ve joined the Social Computing Group at IBM Research, which studies how ICT mediates social interactions. We’re currently developing infrastructure and applications to tackle opportunities like trade and health by facilitating social interactions and crowdsourcing in the African market so people can collectively solve their own problems. IBM has contributed some amazing work to the field of ICT for development, such as the Spoken Web and I’m excited to see what comes out of our research.