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Prof. Dr. Lilac Osanjo is the Director of the School of the Arts and Design at the University of Nairobi. She has been developing projects in the field of design and product development for many years and supports Kenyan companies and start-ups. An interview about African design, renewable resources, waste and how design can contribute to a change in consciousness.

Interview by Jan Hellstern

Ms Osanjo, how would you define African design?

African design is any design that uses Africa as a reference point. It could be as simple as a dot, it could be a pattern. In Africa we have a lot of stories around even simple patterns. It might be used by my forefathers, it may be used by my community – any design that is referenced from the African continent is African design, including persons. If I design, my design can be qualified as African design. If I use African raw materials, my design can also be qualified as African design.

Recently you stated: »Africa – it is our time now!« Why now and what makes this time so special?

We are trying to mobilize African designers to talk about design from an African perspective. Looking at the history of art and design, even people like Picasso and Braque were influenced in some way by the African connections they had at that point in Paris. African designers are talking about Bauhaus, which is not bad, but they also need to talk about the Hemba sculptures, which should be their point of reference to discuss modern art and design. We want to tell the same story but from the African perspective, as a contribution to our understanding of art and design.

The Pan African Design Institute (PADI) is adopting to the Montreal World Design Declaration to improve the quality of life for all and to protect our environment for future generations. Can design be a tool of change? And what is Kenya’s part in this?

Design is not only a tool of change – design should be the driver of the change, showing the direction. Many times we have been told that before design happens, no product happens.

But from the PADI perspective, we are mobilizing African designers and like-minded people to look at design from an African point of view solving Africa’s problems. Africa needs to look at itself first. Strengthen itself, package itself, brand itself and then present itself to the world. We have solutions in Africa; solutions that can save the world, can save the environment and can save our people.

Would you say that African governments nowadays recognize design as a tool more than they did, before?

In my opinion: yes. My department at the University of Nairobi is really engaging with the government. We have government projects looking at sustainable housing and alternative materials. Working together we have more opportunities to share information from research and get more attention. So growth starts in collaboration with our governments.

Being a young Kenyan designer working on my dream to change the world, what are my options?

The University of Nairobi is the oldest Kenyan university with a design school. Today there are about fifteen universities teaching different forms of design. Some are specializing in fashion, some in graphics, others do both. There are also mid-level colleges that grant diplomas and certificates.

One the most interesting options however is given by the Kenyan National Qualifications Authority, which is working with the informal learning systems. If you want to be equal to the formal education system, but you have not attended university, the industry can give you a test. They can assess you and put you at the job scale as a university graduate, depending on your skill levels and your exposure. Even if you have left school at grade nine and have worked in the industry for so long, they will put you back into the formal system.

So if you want to pursue design, you can work in the industry and at some point go to the Kenyan National Qualifications Authority to take a test and maybe leave with a diploma. Like that you are able to achieve a certification. You don’t have to feel useless, because you can pursue your dreams and proceed at whatever level.

“To the African lifestyle, the awareness of plastic being waste is very foreign. Only a couple of years ago it wasn’t there at all. It’s part of this development that we are saying: “Designers stop and think!”

Being a designer also has a critical side to it: Design creates waste. Every item designed will end up as garbage sooner or later. As a sign of national awareness, Kenya has started banning plastic bags from the streets. Did design support this campaign in any significant way?

The significance is very small. To the African lifestyle, the awareness of plastic being waste is very foreign. Only a couple of years ago it wasn’t there at all. It’s part of this development that we are saying: “Designers stop and think!”. We have a lot of raw materials that are sustainable, which can make baskets and even other products for containment. If the problem is containment – what other solutions can be found in tune with our environment? That is the area of research design. Research is now going into the alternatives and the sustainable.

Using plastic bags or bottles is just taking the easy route out. The plastic bottle is there – why not using it? This is just a lack of the thought process in our system. People need to look at the long term effects. It is not enough to say: »Look, this plastic is not acceptable!«

Isn’t that a process of generations? And if so, how far has Africa come in that process?

We want to leapfrog and not wait for two generations. Europe has been through that cycle. Now, let Africa learn from Europe so that we do not need another two cycles going through the same experience.

We appreciate our global networks feeding us with information. That is the benefit we are getting from international collaborations and collaborations among African countries – sharing stories of effects, so that we can pick up the good ones and avoid the bad ones or develop alternatives early.

Ms Osanjo, one of the most vivid spots of trading in Nairobi is the market of Gikomba where you can find everything from second hand clothing to sofas. Are Gikomba customers willing to pay for sustainability or are they rather looking for the cheapest item?

The best sofas in Kenya are coming from Gikomba. But the worst are coming from there, too. We are fighting for basic and recognized standards. I have proposed to the ministry and the manufacturers to create an information center. A spot where artisans can learn about new materials, the good wood, the manufacturing processes and even get some training from our partners from other countries. That would create a benchmark for quality. We cannot afford bad sofas any longer, they affect our health and they also affect pollution. The growth of our landfills with useless products has to stop.

Another issue in Gikomba is the huge amount of second hand clothes shipped from Europe. How does these endless piles of used clothes affect local traders and designers?

The influx of the second hand clothes into Kenya surely affects the growth of the fashion industry. As a member of the Kenyan Fashion Council executive board, I am trying to work with the government to lower the cost of local production so that it’s more affordable for a bigger majority of people. We also try to limit what can come in second hand. It is a big problem and it is really choking the textile industry.

All the shipping takes off in Europe – is there something that could be done from the European side to support your efforts?

Yes there is. When you get a pile of second hand clothes at Gikomba two thirds are useless. You get one sock here, but you can’t find another one. Upcycling could be one of the ways of absorbing this problem. Kenya‘s technology levels in terms of upcycling and recycling are still a bit low.

Our government already banned underwear like bras and panties. We are becoming more stringent and we are working together with the importers. It is very important to have them also sensitised.

Looking at the global goal to reduce waste – how could design change the mindset of people working in Gikomba?

You have to walk through Gikomba and meet the people there. You cannot talk on TV nor issue books or newspapers. You need to listen to them. Design thinking, human centered design! They need to be approached in their language. You have to domesticate design and you have to domesticate these climate change issues and make them understand. And then they will adapt. Very slowly, but yes, they will adapt.

“The manufacturers need to be sensitive for the afterlife and for the repairs of the products they produce.”

— Lilac Osanjo

Some big companies started a turnaround in terms of value and production. A trend that could be called »built to last«. Is that something you also can see happening in Kenya or the African industry?

Yes, here it is mostly about maintenance. Instead of throwing away, you just replace a small part and the machinery continues to function. Generally it is about continuously using what you have rather than keeping on buying obsolete electronics.

We held a few seminars with bigger and smaller manufacturers to sensitise them making products that do not require to be thrown away as the whole thing. The manufacturers need to be sensitive for the afterlife and for the repairs of the products they produce.

Jamhuri Wear is a big brand in Africa. The Kenyan brand is committed to a long lasting sustainable impact. Looking at clothes made from tree barks, do you think that this revival of traditional manufacturing could be an example for a global change of seasons?

Jamhuri Wear uses naturally dyed leather and baobab fibre hand dyed and woven into a hardwearing textile for a range of bags. I have a lot of faith in Jamhuri Wear using Baobab trees and I also have a lot of faith in Sara Nakisanze who is using bark cloth. They might be small but they define the future of our design. They are renewable. Jamhuri Wear harvests the Baobab tree within their environment and the tree renews itself. And he is employing almost 300 women within their localities.

Same goes for Sara Nakisanze using the bark cloth. Every two years the tree bark gives you three to four square meters of material to be used for products. That is the best way to define African design.

Would you say that this design can effectively support campaigns for sustainability in a new and different way?

Yes! The rural urban influx of job seekers is what now brings the cities to congestion. To stop this, you must keep these people in their rurale environments. If you can give them a life at their village – money and a source of livelihood – they are happy. Thus we get a very sustainable cycle and system. As a global commercial venture I’m not sure. But when I look at the potential we have in basketry and in other products, it might just have a real contribution to our GDP.

“Kenya, like the rest of Africa, has got a lot of raw materials. Many of these are exported in their raw forms. But that means denying the country and the producers a significant part of a very much needed income.”

— Lilac Osanjo

At the beginning of the 21st century we all have to be very careful and efficient with the use of natural resources. How is Kenya treating its national resources?

Kenya, like the rest of Africa, has got a lot of raw materials. Many of these are exported in their raw forms. But that means denying the country and the producers a significant part of a very much needed income.

Kenya for example sends out tons of tea all over the world. This tea is used to produce other flavours and then imported back in, where the Kenyans buy it at a more expensive price. We have been working with tea farmers towards value addition locally, so that they can package straight for the supermarket’s abroad and get more money out of their products. We very urgently need a technology upgrade and innovations. We need to strengthen the capacity of our country and our manufacturers to produce better and more.

So a technical upgrade would be an efficient step towards real fair trade?

Looking at the tea, it is too expensive to produce these packages here presently. Kenya can produce them in China. We will give them the design and they will produce it, because they are cheaper and more efficient.

We need to get a little bit more of this cake. We cannot just be sending natural resources like that. Kenya, like the rest of Africa, depends on its natural resources. That is what we have. Also looking at the skins – ostrich skin, livestock skin, crocodile skins – they are shipped abroad, being fabricated into very expensive handbags. But we gain very little, too little.

Talking about technical upgrades: The access to energy can contribute to reduce poverty and increase the quality of life. Are there many areas in Kenya that need a remote energy system? And how does design support life in remote areas?

In Kenya there is no remote area that cannot be connected to the energy infrastructure. On the other hand there is a high dependence on electricity, which now needs to come down drastically. In terms of communication the infrastructure is quite good. Universities like mine offer online classes across the country and are trying to connect the whole country.

There is a very concerted effort to harvest more solar energy. We have the sun 365 days a year. The energy sector is receiving a lot of support from the government, whether it is solar energy, geothermal or wind.

From a design point of view, we have especially been making a lot of research and efforts in terms of cooking energy. The briquettes for simple households. People can make them from their homes for individual consumption.

Generally, we are trying to keep the rural people happy in their areas having access to all the services they would have in bigger cities.

Prof. Dr. Lilac Osanjo

Prof. Dr. Lilac Osanjo

Prof. Dr. Lilac Osanjo is the Director of the School of the Arts and Design at the University of Nairobi. She has been developing projects in the field of design and product development for many years and supports Kenyan companies and start-ups.

She holds a PhD in Design, an MSc in Entrepreneurship and a BA in Design and is currently researching locally available materials to support affordable housing in Kenya. As a patron of the Design Kenya Society, Lilac Osanjo has been a jury member for many design competitions locally and internationally.

The interview first appeared on the Design Networking Hub blog.

The Design Networking Hub

Funded by the Federal Foreign Office, the German Design Museum Foundation is developing the “Design Networking Hub” – a contemporary knowledge and networking platform to support German-Kenyan cooperation projects in the field of design. The Design Networking Hub will provide all essential information for the implementation of German-Kenyan and international cooperation projects. This will create a practice-oriented source of information for the cultural and creative industries of both countries, linking designers, architects and creative professionals from various disciplines and enabling them to initiate and implement cooperation projects independently.

In order to make the information offered by the Design Networking Hub as user-oriented as possible, a pilot group of ten young German and Kenyan designers and architects was put together to work in small teams through the entire process of a bilateral cooperation project. Together, they develop new product, business ideas or non-profit concepts in the areas of mobility, housing and digitalisation. The course of the project is documented on the Design Networking Hub website.

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