Missing something from European design? Look to Africa, says Ravi Naidoo

Eindhoven –  ‘I travel 150 days out of the year,’ Ravi Naidoo explained. ‘So I have a bad carbon footprint, but I do make up for it.’

The founder and managing director of Design Indaba is referring to work that he’s done within the African design community. Since starting the company and event in 1995, his mission has been to put African creativity forth on the global design viewfinder.

On this day out of his annual 150 we were in Eindhoven, and he indeed made up for his footprint: the ebullient pride he has for the creatives who comprise the Design Indaba community was anything but diluted. Every year Naidoo and his team scan the continent for emerging design talents, mentoring them and preparing for the industry, then giving them the opportunity to exhibit their work for the first time at the conference.

And in the past few years, that scouting has led to some international business partnerships: there’s now a multitude of home-grown designers who have taken on massive projects with international clients. Their roots may go uncelebrated by the Euro-centric design community, but not-so-slowly, and surely, these African designers are consistently delivering vanguard design for a global client base. And most importantly: those studios are bringing with them a much-needed adherence to social consciousness and an unfettered spirit of innovation.

The fact that Naidoo is soon entering his 24th year of dedication to the African design community with Interactive Africa and Design Indaba is a clear reminder that shifting – and keeping – our attention below the equator is sorely overdue.

What do you think some of the biggest preconceived notions are from the outside looking in of the African design community?
RAVI NAIDOO: That it’s all artisanal. They may not believe that anyone is doing anything that is really out there – but Africa is a very peculiar continent. I mean, the global epicentre for mobile payment is Kenya. It’s not just handmade, it’s not homogenous, and you can have these fringes that are doing absolutely crazy tech. But the idea is still very ethno bongo.

There’s a graphic design company in Johannesburg that just rebranded Michelin, an architectural practice in Cape Town that just did a massive development in Turkey, an architectural practice in Durban that just re-did the new national stadium in Slovenia, another that did the ice hockey arena for the Sochi Winter Olympic games, and an ad agency in Cape Town that has the global account for Mondelez. Thats what’s going on in design here, and that’s what Europe doesn’t know.

The one thing I love is the hyper-collaborative stuff that’s happening between Africans and the rest of the world. I think that’s the bridge in design we need to create. Some friends of mine started a drone company in Rwanda because the Federal Aviation Administration in America were too stringent to allow them to do commercial drone flights. They could only practice on a small holding on a farm in California. The Rwandan government gave them permission to really test it, the world’s first commercial drone delivery service – Zipline in Rwanda that takes emergency medical supplies and blood to the most remote locations. It’s technically something that could have only happened between the Rwandan Ministry of Health and Zipline.

Design Indaba is behind a heavily anticipated IKEA collection next year. How do you think this international collaboration paint a better picture of the state of the African design industry?
The projects we’re doing with IKEA will be the company’s first African design collection. We worked with 10 sets of designers from Abidjan, Kigali, Dakar, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Cape Town to create it – there aren’t many homes in Europe with artefacts from Africa, proper high-end stuff that you’re proud of in the dining room, or your lounge, or your bedroom.

The most important part of our negotiations with IKEA when we were putting this project together was that a big chunk of the manufacturing happened in Africa – a sponge for employment. You realise, when you’re making these decisions, the responsibility you have to cater to all the other significant issues of the day. Unemployment is one, particularly youth unemployment.

There was a huge awakening about social design [in Africa], before it was even given that name

Indeed, you often quote Alejandro Aravena when he says that scarcity is a wonderful antidote to arbitrariness.
There was a huge awakening about social design [in Africa], before it was even given that name. People were upcycling and recycling way before we were conscious, because there was a scarcity issue. A lot more Africans are aware of this. There’s also a lot more working with the hands – for me, that’s the ultimate luxury. Anything touched by the human hand is the ultimate luxury. 

There’s been an interesting period in the last decade or so in the creative industries. It’s a marked difference that I can see particularly in my country. There have been some amazing success stories. It wasn’t a viable profession, just a while back – especially in South Africa, where we grew up in such a peculiar social-engineering experiment – you could not have been a black designer prior to 1994 anyway. I think the world is hearing a voice they haven’t heard, hearing stories they haven’t heard before – it’s wonderful to see products that people have sourced at Design Indaba finding their way into stores like Anthropologie or Globus, for example. It creates jobs and it’s really a wonderful affirmation for African designers to actually see it pull through globally.

What is the defining element of African design nowadays?
I think the African design community is more socially conscious. Design Indaba reflects that. There’s so much going on, and you can’t be beached on an elitist island. You’re very, very conscious of the huge inequities between rich and poor. There are still a few smatterings of designers who work exclusively in galleries, who I’m not particularly fond of. Selling a piece to a collector for 20,000 dollars is not exactly where I think design should be at.

The diaspora is coming back [and that is] hooking the continent on the global express – there’s a new confidence that Africa’s getting its stuff together

How does the geo-political context of the continent help designers?
You could say that creative art and science mature only in the framework of hospitable social ideals. Maybe, in more established countries, you’ve already closed off the space for experimentation – there are very deeply ingrained legacy systems, so it gets in the way of progress. Because that’s not so well-defined yet in Africa, we represent a wonderful beta-testing site for these new innovations.

I’m thinking of the diaspora, and I’m thinking of the diaspora coming back – the amazing brain game starting to happen. More countries have Democratic governments. You have this scenario, in my country certainly, in Ghana, Nigeria, that people who studied in Ivy League universities and so on are coming back home. That is having a huge impetus – people are coming back with skills, networks and capital. It’s reengaging Africa – hooking the continent on the global express. There’s a new confidence that Africa’s getting its stuff together.

This interview has been edited & condensed for clarity.


The Design Indaba Conference 2019 will take place from Wednesday 27 February to Friday 01 March 2019 in the Opera House of the Artscape Theatre Centre in Cape Town.

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