Why Designers Need To Stop Feeling Sorry For Africa
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Earlier this year, the Cooper-Hewitt wrapped up “Design with the Other 90%: Cities,” the second in a series of exhibitions intended to demonstrate how design can address the world’s most critical issues. This time around, the focus was on the challenges created by rapid urban growth in informal settlements. Some highlights were Digital Drum in Kampala, Uganda, a solar-powered information access point made from two durable, low-cost oil drums welded together, rugged keyboards, solar panels, and low-power tablets; a large-scale oven that uses trash as fuel to power a communal cooking facility in Kibera, Nairobi; and M-Pesa, a money-transfer service that enables urban migrants in Kenya to send money back to their villages via a mobile device.
The designers represented were local. But locals aren’t leading the pack when it comes to designing products for the bottom of the pyramid. Examples of Western efforts to care for the other 90% are many: Social entrepreneurship has grown into a full-fledged program at Harvard, Forbesstarted a list of the top 30 social entrepreneurs last year, and a host of major design studios have established nonprofit initiatives, including IDEO and Fuseproject. The latter designed MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop, with the goal of creating an educational project for poor schoolchildren, rather than a cheap laptop for the masses.
It is no wonder that these projects have gained massive interest, since bottom-of-the-pyramid markets–those in the lowest global income band (with average household incomes below $1,500 a year)–provide a tantalizing market opportunity. In his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, the Wharton Business School professor C. K. Prahalad argues that businesses can combat poverty and turn a profit at the same time.
But the road to hell may well be paved with good intentions. There clearly is a bottom-of-the-pyramid market, but linking it to “aid culture”–a non-market-driven-culture–detracts from the entrepreneurial opportunity. And correlating hunger, AIDS, malaria, poverty, and illiteracy with Africa perpetuates a stereotype that is far from the optimistic, go-get-it-attitude and ambition that we’ve encountered when traveling in Africa. Take, for instance, the title of this Harvard report: “HIV/AIDS and Business in Africa and Asia: A Guide to Partnerships.”
Obviously, HIV/AIDS is an issue to be addressed but confusing and pairing regions with issues make them synonymous in the public eye. How does “Obesity/Diabetes and Business in North America: A Guide to Partnerships” sound? To us, it sounds funny, but it doesn’t sound conducive to business. How would American businesses react to foreign customers who expressed pity for them at large? I bet that seeing foreign news headlines like “Give America a Chance: Support the Fat and Illiterate” would get tiring after a while. That is what Africans experience over and over again–plus foreign-media-dominated news about Africa to the outside world.