Profiling African Design

In recent years, African design has continued to build traction in the global market – from architecture and industrial design to fashion and digital design.

Jens Martin Skibsted – designer, brands expert and entrepreneur – believes that no other sector holds so much promise for the African continent. He says, “From a macro perspective, Africa needs to look beyond product design to design thinking – the design of processes, policies and business models that allow people to prototype their way out of problems.”

Skibsted is a founding partner of Skibsted Ideation, Biomega, KiBiSi and, more recently, Ogojiii Magazine, and he is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and member of the Global Agenda Council on Design.

He says, “Even more important is how the continent will fare based on how much money it makes. Africa is extremely diverse and has the potential to position itself globally. For example, the building sector needs to grow in order to accommodate almost 2 billion more people worldwide in the next 80 odd years. So, while building in order to accommodate a rapidly expanding and urbanising population, it would pay to keep the money inside the continent.

“How this is done is part of the design question. And it would include inter-connecting through multilateral agreements, knowledge-exchange platforms like architectural and design magazines, and events where people gather from around continent.”

He observes that, in Africa today, design strengths are regionally based. For example, South Africa has a variety of design types that are very mature and strongly influenced by Europe – with Cape Town in particular developing a complete ecosystem in interior, furniture, industrial and product design.

In the rest of Africa, a more genuinely African approach pervades together with an opportunity for real leadership. For example, digital design coming out of East African countries like Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda is generating models that can be followed globally. Two such examples are the information system that was designed to monitor rioting around the elections in Kenya, which has subsequently been re-appropriated to monitor riots in the US; and models for money wiring that have been rethought globally to service mobile payment systems.

Skibsted adds, “An advantage for many of the East Africa markets is that they share similarities with the Indian market, so ideas can be implemented in a market of over one billion people.”

West Africa, in turn, has developed a particular strength around fashion and has become one of the few African design industries that is truly visible globally. This is a superb example of Africa capitalising on its own cultural capital by making iconographies exotic and re-contextualising them for an international audience, rather than replicating what’s done elsewhere.

Skibsted also comments on the architecture in West Africa that is attracting media attention worldwide. “We are seeing three different movements. Firstly, home grown architecture catering to an increasingly affluent market at home – mostly through residential and religious architecture that is resulting in some of the most interesting churches globally. Secondly, a few architects like Francis Kéré who are using vernacular or indigenous techniques that can be exploited globally and can also be afforded on the local market – thus effectively expanding their market. Thirdly, architects like David Adjaye who are taking African iconography and propagating it for an international market.”

Africa is also beginning to develop a lot of off-grid technology in response to regional and climatic factors, with solar technology and solar planes being obvious examples. Lately, Skibsted has become very interested in hybrid airship technology that offers a cleaner option than drones, and has potential for wide-scale application in areas that are not well-connected in terms of old school infrastructure.

Commenting on the Ogojiii vision, Skibsted says, “Design on the continent is divided in terms of a number of factors – linguistically, with many African languages, Arab, French, Portuguese and English; in terms of design disciplines that are traditionally very self-contained; and in terms of a rather unique phenomenon where academics and practitioners have very little interaction.

“So the intention is to bring down the barriers between the design sectors, looking at all types of design related to multiple industries. And also to explore design thinking or the process of design – through political processes, business content that is design related, and addressing problems by prototyping solutions.

“We also feature African stories by Africans. In general in the media, stories are not made by Africans, so often a weird outside-in view is propagated. This is because it is easier and cheaper to syndicate stuff written by a foreign correspondent in Johannesburg, for example, rather than buying content from a journalist on the spot in Harare, telling a story from an African point of view. So we want to relate the story of the African design movement from an African perspective.”

As a platform that seeks to change the narrative around African architecture, the Africa Architecture Awards plays a crucial role in facilitating this interconnectedness between regions and disciplines; in profiling merit-worthy projects; and in encouraging much-needed exploration, collaboration and innovation in the design of the continent’s built environment.


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