Design in Africa and/or other "non-western regions"

I’m in a unique point of my career that I have figured out that I can choose what I design and who I design it for (**see postscript).

The backstory for this post comes from my trip to Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) in 2001. I’ve had an overwhelming urge to get back there ever since. An even stronger urge is to use my skills as a designer/entrepreneur to work in that region. My whole career I’ve “done the right thing”. Working for other companies, started my own buinsess(es), etc. But I’ve come out the other end wanting more out of the next phase of my career. I am one that will never retire, but I also am wanting to find work partners where there is more meaning behind what we’re doing together. I’m wanting to build something bigger than me (if that makes sense).

Really what this means is that I want to design for and within new cultures. I want to use my skills in such a way that I can develop new products/systems and allow myself the ability to contribute on a larger/different scale than what I see in North America.

I have 4-5 years before my kids are out of school, so I am not quite able to move and live as a ex-pat somewhere. But that is a definite interest of mine in the future. Something I’m more than willing to work towards.

I’d love your thoughts on this. Where does one even look for these kinds of opportunities? This feels like a bit of a pipe dream and there won’t be this kind of opportunity posted on Coroflot Jobs.

I’m even curious about anyone who may have worked in this capacity. Was it what you expected? Any thoughts on this in general would be greatly appreciated.

**Postscript: The reality is that this ability has always been there. I just fell into the traditional work/life path of our society. But that’s a whole other conversation.

Several big corporations nowadays (at least in Europe, for example Philips, Unilever) are expanding from developing just their traditional product portfolio for Western markets to also meaning something for lower tier countries. Going beyond themselves. At least many are developing social responsibility programs which opens up the door for such collaborations. I would look for those kinds of opportunities, because there will be the funding to actually realise something meaningful. Or, if you can, the speediest way may be to develop a project on your own, under your own license. Then find a remote test community and start to work with them to develop your products. This way it truly becomes co-design and locally crafted products have become very hip.

Unfortunately, finding such opportunities in North America I suspect is more difficult, unless you want to design for Latin America. I’ll second Ralph’s recommendation to start looking in the EU if you want to work with Africa. I design for the medical field, but if I go to an “international” trade show in the US, the non-US groups attending the show is nearly zero. A similar “international” show in the EU will have a large outside-EU/US group attending.

The biggest factor O-EU/US is costing. Large corporations look at the smaller margin and tend not to devote resources, so that will also limit your search. Another factor is just finding distributors. We axed South Korea a couple years ago because of a bad distributor, and SK is an “easy” market. I guess my point being that business outside western countries is a completely different beast. Be ready for a drastic change in your normal operating practise.

I think it’s a great idea, but get informed. Africa is (for the most part) not Biafra anymore. In fact, they are ratifying an African free trade union (African Continental Free Trade Area - Wikipedia), Morocco has the largest solar power facility and the economy is booming (albeit from a lower point than where Canada is).

I suggest to start at Dollar Street. It’s an incredible website that allows you to see what’s inside people’s home from a cross section of economic classes and countries all over the world. It’s a great resource for designers actually…

I took my design team to this exhibition last year. In addition to the Gates Foundation’s composting toilet there were many examples of co-design projects with cultures and problem statements much richer than “customers aren’t buying the light gray color any more”.

Maybe researching or getting in contact with the designers, the sponsors, or the Gates Foundation could yield more insights.

Thanks for the input.

To Ray…Your point is very well taken with respect to being informed about this. I’m not looking to go and “save the developing countries”. More specifically, I’m seeing the previously underserved regions of the planet starting to “come online”. As you say, they are starting to grow a middle class and they are moving up the consumption curve. It is in that where I believe design and innovation needs to happen. If millions/billions of people come online consuming in the same manner as we have been over the past 200 years, the planet is truly and completely screwed.

Slippy, I will look into the Gates Foundation realm. I’m definitely interested in the composting toilets, but my interest falls more in the realm of exploring products and the systems in which they’re designed and implemented. Changing the paradigm of design with the intent of driving better/different consumption habits.

See this video as part of my current inspiration: Dame Ellen MacArthur shares her vision of a circular economy for a better planet - YouTube

iab…a very drastic change to my current operating practice is exactly what I’m looking for.

idzone…I’m not tied to the idea of Africa. I have a deep fascination with that part of the planet and it is an easy starting point for this conversation. Latin America is on my radar as I would be able to speak the language after a month or two of immersion (Spanish over Portuguese). With that said, I’m also interested in remote regions of North America. Someone I spoke to recently put the bug in my ear to start looking at working with indigenous communities to teach design and mentor innovation/design/entrepreneurship.

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I am currently undertaking a PhD in Design for Development which involves designing products for use in ‘Developing Countries’.

I would honestly say that you will find that you can be more useful and more impactful by employing your skills closer to home. You don’t have to look far to find poverty or poor quality of life due to a lack of affordable products - homeless people, single parents, people who have grown up in second and third generations of living on benefits (state aid is the American term for this?) that could get out of poverty through employment by creating products which are locally made through the help of Designers. I could go on and on but you don’t need to travel half way across the world to help people significantly through Design.

The reality of the countries which are most in need of development is mass corruption at governmental level, many groups of people impoverished due to being excluded for cultural and/or religious reasons that you cannot prevent, ignorance and apathy of richer people in said countries to the existence or extent of suffering of the poor populations, NGOs that burn money with little to nothing show for it, NGOs turning a blind eye to or even acceptance of practices which are hugely detrimental to the people undertaking them in the name of not interfering with culture, etc, etc.

I would urge you to consider what you can do for people in need in cultures which you know better and can be embedded in much easier. There are entire towns in America which could be enhanced through opportunities provided by Designers.

That’s effectively what another colleague told me with respects to remote regions of Canada. I’ll admit, part of this is wanting to get out and experience other cultures. So, my ask to you would be, considering with your PhD, you’re as close to an expert on this as anyone in this forum…what would your suggestion be for groups/companies, etc. to have discussions with along these lines for closer to home.

Keno…I’ve already run into the problems you’re discussing with respect to the corruption at corporate levels in Mexico. Can’t/won’t get into it here, but I know exactly what you’re talking about.

The “why” I want to do this comes down to wanting to be part of the future solution to consumption habits. As I mentioned above, as we (hopefully?) start pulling more and more people out of poverty across the globe, consumption is going to go up. Unless we change how people consume products, we’re screwed…if we’re not already.

Hi Jon. I would not call myself an expert - I am only 6 months in. I can say that I am very familiar with all of the existing literature though. There is more work you can find from Engineers than Designers that are solely functional and with little regard to human factors or aesthetics, and also from a Marketing perspective where existing products are adapted to the different situation. Designing products from the ground up arguably requires a lot more time spent with the communities involved then is really feasible for people from another country. The less time you spend with the people then the more you will impose your own worldview and priorities on the products which you design and hence erode the local culture, etc. I personally don’t think that is a problem if their basic needs are better met, but it is a huge no-no from the perspectives of NGOs and governments. I have the luxury of funding and partner organisations (universities and charities) in different countries that give me the ability to do this more easily than perhaps you will have.

The subject of my PhD is not something I technically chose, it is driven by the funding, but I am enjoying it and I am fairly sure I can contribute something. Although knowing what I know now, particularly experiencing corruption and the gross ignorance richer people have first hand, I might not have chosen it.

More thoughts:

  1. One of my colleagues is Tanzanian and his sister, who emigrated to London, is now moving back to Tanzania. If you could network to someone who is either in one of these countries or frequently visit them, it would be easier to get things done.

  2. I thought of starting a project about five years ago with my brother. He moved to Thailand, which is one of the world’s largest rubber forest. I thought of doing rubber products and importing them to Canada. I think something like that would be the biggest benefit as most of these countries struggle to export to the world markets.

  3. If you look at dollar street, the biggest problems in the poorest parts of the world are pretty basic: sanitation, shelter, heat, access to banking/finance. However, it’s also interesting to see the “luxuries” that some people have. TVs, radios, phones, toys. Sanitation is one of those big development problems that need huge wallets and organization to adequately solve. It’s the problems that can be solved on an individual level that a designer could likely contribute more to.

In one village I visited in India most households had a TV and satellite dish but no toilet, infected water, cooking on open fires indoor, etc.


I grew tired of the corruption and scandal while living, working and teaching design locally in Seoul for 12 years. Several of the projects I worked on were disrupted due to corruptive forces that poisoned the study and funding of empirically led innovation and research. As a result, I moved to the US in 2018. The enthusiasm for taking risks with design is much more advanced in Asia than I have seen in my short time here in the US. MK19 is correct when he characterized the field of design research is lead by funding by NGOs, governments and think tanks as well I would add. The unfortunate reality is that many of these organizations are more interested in measuring collected data than actually improving conditions on the ground with design. PhDs are used as canaries in coal mines to support financial and political agendas on many occasions.

What I would suggest is to use these next 4-5 years while you are still responsible for your children’s critical well being to being to lay the groundwork in a few specific areas for a move overseas. In Asia (Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong etc.) I can attest that it is nearly impossible to organize much of anything as a designer unless you are attached to a university. They value teaching experience in North America so if you can get some teaching experience under your belt before you make the leap it will give you many more opportunities to get to know others and also contribute your expertise and knowledge while finding the right partners to solve local problems. Having said that, there is a new form of organization that is being evolved by the Millennial and GenZ generations that is leveraging technology to end run established models of funding, development and organization. These are the models that are being funded by entrepreneurs and those with resources that can be risked.

Part of “going native” is becoming intimate with the culture. Language is among the most important variables in lubricating the success for your ambitions. Start learning the languages of where you are targeting today and not when you arrive. There are many online resources to get started in this skill area and the more hours you put in now, the more you will spend less being frustrated by your inability to make things happen to due language gaps.

Lastly, refrain from having a grand narrative that guides your insertion into a new culture. This is the mistake that modernists make and modernism and post-modernism in design died back in the 20th century. Posthumanism in design and its emergence and application in new markets will allow developing nations to leapfrog many steps in development. This will cause many problems along the way as corners are cut. You might find some interesting spaces open up with regard to this trend.

Good luck…

p.s…Get ready for a fight between China and the USA for economic supremacy and dominance. (especially in Africa)

One more thing that I thought of:

Fairphone is a project to make a phone using the least exploitive labor possible and make a smart phone that is more sustainable (easily replaceable parts). The founder had a real hard time getting everything sourced fairly because of global markets. When you buy cobalt, it’s impossible to know if its from Ontario or a slave labor camp in Africa because it all gets mixed together to process it into batteries and chips. Also, the Fairphone team joined with Asian factories to set up production where the workers were treated more fairly and paid a livable wage. I think it might be interesting for you because they had to build a global team to try and get the phone as responsible as they could.

He might have some insights for you though in this interview from a couple years ago: Bas Van Abel “Fingerprints On The Touchscreen”   | Team Human

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Why is that when a discussion about non-western design occurs, the immediate response is swing for the fences? Not to pick on anyone in particular, but a lot of design cliches have been thrown out here.

The simple fact is when designing for non-western countries, you do not need to design for abject poverty. When designing for non-western countries, you do not have to hold them above western standards.

I’ll even give a case in point. Florence Nightingale got it right 200 years ago. Basic patient hygiene saves lives. It prevents infections and the consequences of those infections, which in some cases, is a 30% mortality rate. How do you bathe a couple hundred bed-ridden people everyday when your water source is suspect? By the way, I’m not necessarily talking about a non-western country as this is an actual problem in Germany’s hospitals.

So in a hospital, in Africa/South America/SE Asia or wherever, filled with middle-class patients, why should someone like Jon not use his talents to solve problems? Why does he need a grant from some benevolent billionaire? Why does any solution need to be organic or modular or fairly sourced or focused on poverty or work with an NGO or to any ethos other than his? Maybe Jon is simply just interested in a change. Whether it “saves the world” shouldn’t be a prerequisite.

iab: you remind me of the surgical safety checklist. It was developed for developing countries to improve medical surgeries by having the doctors and staff make sure they are operating on the right person, for the right surgery and that they have all the necessary equipment before starting. Western hospitals have reportedly had great success using them too! We’re just as disorganized, we just do it on a computer.

I think developing nations don’t need more design, they need more entrepreneurs, more communication and more reliable export channels. A few years ago, I worked on some teak furniture. We quoted in China, but the prices were insane (it’s hard to get teak wood in China). Vietnam was much better on price, as teak grows there and they have a good supply. However, communications with the factory were a pain! No one spoke english, emails disappeared into a black hole and nothing really got done until we had someone visit the factory. Lastly, exporting and importing were more complicated (I can’t remember how, but it seemed like more bureaucracy and Canadian logistics companies didn’t have as much experience to help).

Think about it: there are highly competitive factories all over the globe ready to make anything, supply jobs and develop their community, but they are shut out by lack of english skills, lack of reliable internet, complicated (or corrupt) import/export system and a lack of finance to invest in growth. That’s where any westerner can have a positive impact.

In peoples’ defense, I did mention an interest in change with respect to consumption in relation to resources/global warming.

I’m very early in this thought process. As with any modern ADHD riddled adult, I’d love for that perfect opportunity to fall into my lap. But I am looking at possibilities within North America as well. If I leave N/A, somewhere with a burgeoning middle class is more what I’m seeking.

I do have to say, I have zero interest in designing another biodegradable straw. I find that to be one of the most misplaced good products to be focusing on at the moment. It helps drive change, but it ain’t gonna change a thing.

Change, my friend, is the number one priority. Being an almost 50 year old, white male designer, I do feel as though I might be in a position to “swing for some fences”. Get some good funding, etc. I’m open to that too. But I do tend to lean towards the idea that I just want to do my part to try and keep my children’s world from burning.

What you’re describing here is more on track with what I’m thinking. I want to utilize not only my skills as a designer, but as an entrepreneur. Where I live I’m better postioned to do a lot of this for Asia/China. But that region currently has the focus. I’m thinking more “where next”.

Here is where we disagree. How we consume is exactly what needs to change for anything to get fixed. The mentality that we just need to change materials is just moving things from one place to another.

I posted this link earlier in the thread:

It gets into more of what I’m thinking about. I don’t believe that changing what material straws are made from is going do change a single thing. It is changing how we design in a way that changes how people consume. I view it as a mash-up of 1950s things are “built to last” mentality with Cradle to Cradle mentality.