OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

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.

Photo of DeletedUser
14 11

Written by DeletedUser

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.


Join the conversation:

Photo of James McBennett

nice post!

View all comments