African Design Deluge

05/29/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

There are few that don't have an opinion when it comes to judging the value of design in today's companies. Silicon Valley powerhouse Apple undoubtedly cashed in on design and many newcomers are doing so too. Imagine Uber and Airbnb for instance without design thinking. Anyone can dream up great ideas, but an idea is nothing until it's realized, be it as a website, a physical product, an app or a user interface. Being design-led means designers take ideas from the abstract to the concrete, from potential to real value. Even techies agree, we are in the midst of a renaissance of design.

When the design renaissance is mentioned it is mostly assumed that it will flourish in Western countries, some admit Asia to the club. The south, including Africa, is left out.
How does that reflect the hockey stick growth rates in African markets? Already at $1.6 trilllion now, Africa's collective GDP will grow to $2.6 trillion by 2020. By 2040 Africa will have more than 1 billion people of working age - making it the planet's largest labor force - and where one in five of the world's youth will live. With 313 million people, Africa has the fastest-growing middle class in the world. Tax-paying consumers in the middle class are the growth engines of any sustainable economy. (Source Toby Shapshack, Ogojiii Magazine). But also, the number of ultra-high net worth individuals - those with at least $30 million in assets - will increase by a staggering 59% over the next 10 years, stronger than the 34% projected global growth (Source Standard Bank). To the sceptics I will say that the number of potential customers in sub-Saharan Africa alone will increase by approximately 500 million people within the next 20 years. Regardless of how you view their prospects and appetite for consumption, one thing is for sure, they will want to eat. That fast-moving consumer goods market alone is worthy of attention.

Why the link between the design renaissance and Africa's surge isn't made more often is odd to me. You might claim that sub-Saharan African countries remain dependent on raw material extractive industries and are often single-commodity dependent. And that recent investments, including by the Chinese, have even reinforced Africa's commodity dependence. The strong commodity prices disincentivizes African policy-makers to accelerate their efforts towards design-led diversification.

This vision of an Africa in dire need of help is reinforced by the international design community. The vision of African design outside of Africa is overshadowed by foreign designers coming up with design solutions to help Africans with very basic needs - e.g. to prevent diseases such as Malaria, carrying water and such. Negroponte and Behar's One Laptop Per Child Laptop for instance, is in itself a great design, but also an example of not facing these perceptions. It failed in its initial plan to drop millions of inexpensive computers into villages, to hook kids directly to the internet and thereby get them to educate themselves, in part because it was perceived as inappropriate technological colonialism that cut out those responsible for education.

The program that I moderate at the World Economic Forum's Africa summit is also about development: Designing Human-Centered Development - and here the overall discourse revolves around the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals Development Agenda.

There clearly are challenges to be dealt with in Africa, but linking design to "aid culture"-a non-market-driven-culture- detracts from Africa's entrepreneurial opportunities.

The rising cost pressures on the BRIC economies, and manufacturing sectors will increasingly lead to manufacturing capacity and eventually design capabilities to relocate to lower-cost African economies. This trend is likely to create giant entrepreneurial opportunities and be a driving force of an African manufacturing and design revolution.

This design revolution has already begun. African designers are on the rise - in Africa and across the world. Many consumers are now aware of the vigorous fashion scene that has emerged in many African countries in recent years. Africa's new fashion is created by cosmopolitan designers who eclipse traditional limits. They are grounded in African heritage, but are exposed to international aesthetics, allowing them to satisfy local demand, attract international attention and shape new African identities. Beyoncé and Michelle Obama have sensitized Western consumers to the sub-Saharan designers they find on online retailers such as

Die hard design buffs are following the Architects from the continent that are reinventing African architecture such as David Adjaye, Francis Kéré, and Issa Diabaté.

Still, the fashion design scene is one of the few that has really caught global attention. The African design scene is extremely fragmented. The architects, industrial designers, craftsmen, innovators, hackers, makers, graphic designers etc. stay in each their silos; these practitioners don't cross paths with the design academics; and the different African linguistic zones add separation to the silos. Which makes most design on the continent seem like a sub-critical mass, when it is not.

The emergence of this giant continental consumer goods market and rapid urban growth spurs new African products that are increasingly being adapted to the African palate. In Tanzania, a local soft drink maker has pushed Coca-Cola to adapt their bottle design to the local market. FMCG are coming out of Africa and going global. This is a huge driver of African design.
The leapfrog opportunities that social media and digital tools embrace is another African design force. Whether it is on social networks (Hummba, Bandeka, Obami), mobile instant messaging (Mxit, Dropifi, Sembuse), making payments (FloCash, PesaPal) or other African digital services they need a graphic design interface. These ventures generally do not emulate Western start-ups, but create proper African intellectual property and businesses that are re-exported into BRIC countries and the West. These digital ventures drive up the salaries of designers in Africa and show the value of design thinking for the continent.

Some of the biggest leapfrogging opportunities in Africa actually come out of missing infrastructure - finding simple, frugal, often low-tech solutions to everyday problems. Mobile tech, solar tech, push the demand for better skills in industrial design on the continent, but also appropriate the design skills at hand.

When you judge the value of design in today's business environment, you can't just think Silicon Valley or such. You need to understand that Africa, the continent presently with highest growth rates, also grows because of design. Imagine M-Pesa for instance without design thinking - you can't. Africans are dreaming up great ideas and are realizing them one by one.

The lion's share of the design renaissance will be African.