Sunday, February 6, 2011

Designing With Africans

Chelsea Ransom is a dual-degree master’s student at the University of Michigan, and part of our Empower Design team. She has had previous experience in Africa, as she helped bring clean water to a small Malian village as a member of the Peace Corps. She recently applied to and received the prestigious William Davidson Institute Student-Initiated Summer Internship Grant for an internship in Uganda under Dr. Moses Musaazi, a colleague of Dr. Mechtenberg. Bellow is an excerpt from her application, which details our research team’s philosophy of designing with Africans as opposed to for them:

“Many well-meaning organizations and companies are unsuccessful in Africa when it comes to the sustainability of their projects. Often this is due to the processes used in development of their technologies or concepts. I personally experienced frustration living in Africa over and over again, especially in the technological realm, with new, unsustainable medical, energy, or water devices. Sometimes these “sustainable” devices are purely western in nature, such as photovoltaic solar panels, which were designed for the western world and imported into Africa. Other devices like the solar oven I owned in Africa are designed by westerners for Africans. Frequently, these devices are too complicated to repair, impossible to manufacture locally, too expensive for the majority, or simply impractical. Unfortunately these projects are the ones gaining recognition (Rosenthal 2010), while locally designed, more sustainable projects are not. Many of these organizations are failing to grasp the underlying elements of success. In my experience, the difference between unsuccessful and successful projects lies in the difference between designing for Africans and designing with Africans. Organizations often design and implement projects but never return to evaluate its sustainability. If they did return, they would likely be disappointed to find their expensive gifts broken and in disrepair. Furthermore, there are many technologies being designed by Africans to meet their own needs, and these technologies are often not brought to market as discussed [in recent articles].”

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