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By the riverside

Using story telling to get local communities in Africa to embrace and claim back the rivers

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How does your idea apply new technologies to make agriculture and water systems more resilient in the face of climate threats?

Any system and technology needs to have buy in and support from the local community. We find too often in African that very successful technology from the West fails when implemented in Africa. this is primarily due to the local community not taking ownership or being part of the process.

Wagenia is a riverine tribe that has built its fame upon water. Their ability to manipulate the river flow in the cataracts, their fishing techniques in the waterfalls and their initiation practices have provided them a reputation for being the finest watermen of the river Congo. 

In Wagenia culture, the baby’s first river bath half a year after its birth was a sign that the infant had survived the first months of its life and had not fallen victim to the high infant mortality. After this bath the child was allowed outdoors and outside the village. A child born after the premature death of one or more children of the same mother was placed in a canoe, which was allowed to float freely on the water without human intervention for a few moments the first day of the child’s life. After its boat-ride through no-man’s-land, it was pulled ashore again with the exclamation “we have found a baby”. Such a child was named Bvoloiyaba, i.e. “dead fish (floating on the water) of the river”. The exclamation was accompanied with the wish “catch us fish, Bvoloiyaba”.

(Water Culture and Identity[MK1] )

Whereas rivers hold “only about 0.006 percent of total freshwater reserves”[1] globaly, it is commonly accepted that rivers have played a significant part in the history of African tradition and culture. Although all rivers carry the same physical water made up of two particles hydrogen and one particle oxygen this precious liquid is viewed and treated differently depending what it is being used for.  Holy water being used for a baptism or purification ritual is seen as very different to water being used for irrigation purposes or the water driving a hydroelectric plant on the Nile. When dealing with any river system it is therefore critical to have an appreciation for the cultural and religious traditions which shape that community or society. 

  Interestingly the way river communities deal and interact with their water may transcend modern national borders.  Identities and traditions linked to the river may represent regions and broader cultural spheres across geographic nations. Rivers can therefore represent an Afrikan identity that can unite or divide people across modern day political and national boundaries. A case in point is the path followed by the Nile (the world’s longest river) from its source to the Mediterranean Sea.

It is commonly accepted that broad stakeholder participation is an essential part of any successful water resource management initiative (Chambers, 1983). Much research has been done on incorporating local culture into water studies including the research by UNIFOB Global in 2008 on Water, Culture and Identity. UNESCO also reported on the numerous international platforms covering the theme of water and cultural diversity (UNESCO, 2006).

However the lack of integration of cultural factors in water resource management and policies creates a large gap, which can be addressed by a comprehensive and systematic assessment of research and case studies on the topic of water and cultural diversity (Chapter 2 WCI Oestigaard).[MK1]

So how does an engineering consulting company embrace story-telling to better understand the history of rivers in African culture?  In collaboration with the World Design Organisation and the Nairobi University, Aurecon has initiated a design thinking project called “By the River”.  Launched at the Nairobi Innovation Week in March 2017 the project will look at using human centric methodologies to gain a better appreciation for the rivers in the city of Nairobi. 

What is the potential desired future state of rivers in African cities?

‘In the Sub-Saharan African context, the desired state of riverine systems could ideally be one where these systems function as a source of environmental, economic and socio-cultural prosperity. For this ideal to come to fruition, there is a need for riverine systems to be seen as the metaphorical veins of African cities. Ideal functioning riverine systems are those of good water quality which create rich ecological habitats by providing a level of flood attenuation, sediment trapping and carbon storage.

Simultaneously, riverine systems can contribute to the aesthetic prowess of urban cities as well as provide ample opportunities for sustainable subsistence and commercial practices. Only once riverine systems are functional can they contribute to environmental, social and economic upliftment, either directly or indirectly (Aurecon Analysis Report 2016).

 However achieving ‘functioning riverine systems’ will only become a reality if the local community takes ownership of the initiative.  The “By the River” project launched at the Nairobi Innovation Week in March 2017 did not look at what innovation or technology can be used to clean up the river.  The human-centric approach was to ask the question: What is the role of the river in Nairobi culture and history?

The name "Nairobi" comes from the Maasai phrase Enkare Nairobi, which translates to "the place of cool waters". The phrase is also the Maasai name of the Nairobi River, which in turn lent its name to the city.  The Nairobi River and its tributaries flow through the broader Nairobi County. 

The river therefore played not only a significant part in shaping the city but also the culture and history of its people. In the local culture the term “By the riverside” is very significant.  When you had a special announcement to make you would go down to the river to make it.  When you had a special meeting it would happen by the river. So can we rediscover this history? Can we start telling the story of the river in local culture? What if we can get people to proudly tell their history through their connection to the river?  Can we get people to re-embrace the rivers? By re-embracing the rivers you will be re-embracing your history. You will be re-embracing your culture. We will start celebrating our proud African history. This is the journey we are embarking on; to tell the story of the rivers in Nairobi.  Once people have embraced the rivers we can start the environmental discussion with respect to water management systems.


We can then look at what technology or innovation will support people in claiming back the rivers.  How can private sector support the people on this journey?  This is the human centric approach which puts the people at the centre of everything. Once we have support from the end user for the outcome we can explore how we are going to get there. Welcome to “By the river”.

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

We have launched the project with Nairobi University and had introductory workshops on design thinking with the local students. The approach and workshops have been very well received in Nairobi by a number of stakeholders. We will now be launching pilot teams of students to take the work further.

We are excited to learn about ideas at diverse stages of development. At what stage would you currently classify your idea as? (multiple choice)

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

How do you plan to grow or scale this idea?

This project will be done in partnership with Nairobi university and endorsed by World Design Organisation

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Promoting and supporting the concept of Afrikan design innovation. The project argues strongly that engineers, architects, planners, designers and allied professionals embrace transdiciplinary and participatory ethnographic tools in their quest for more creative and innovative solutions as they aspire to contribute towards the development projects on the continent and similar majority third world contexts.

This idea emerged from:

A dialogue called Afrikan Design innovation. Using African tradition history and culture to improve innovation on the African continent.

Tell us about your work experience:

Director of Innovation and Transformation at Aurecon, a large multidisciplinary engineering and advisory business that has introduced design thinking into its DNA. We are one of the largest engineering consulting businesses in Africa and involved with major infrastructure projects across the region. We have implemented a number of pilots using the Afrikan Design Innovation narrative including Our African City and Afrikanist in Motion


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