Demystifying ‘African’ design, The Africa is Now Exhibition

An in-depth review of the Design Indaba Expo 2014 held February 28 – March 2, 2014.

At this year’s edition of the seminal design expo meets conference – Design Indaba, innovation beyond South Africa’s borders was given a front and centre venue at the Africa is Now exhibition.


It was a preview of things to come as Design Indaba, the largest showcase of design in the global south, also announced their fundamental shift.

In past years, the expo celebrated and incubated South African design. However from 2014, Ravi Naidoo and his team at Interactive Africa (the mastermind behind the event now successfully into its twentieth year) are widening their ambitious sights.

The fair will become a platform celebrating design and innovation from the continent as a whole. Stay tuned in 2014, as Another Africa joins them to showcase designs as their international design media partner.

Set in a vibrant popesque ambiance, the work of 66 designers/labels coming from 25 African nations was on show last month in Cape Town.

Described as an up-to-the-minute survey of emerging, established and unexpected talent, the exhibit successfully brought together ideas from the fields of software development, fashion, industrial, product, furniture design and architecture.

In recent years there have been numerous media trends to frame the potential and new avenues for growth for the continent as ‘Africa Rising.’ However, what was absolutely refreshing about this particular show was not that it spoke a gospel of excess positivity, but that it focused on real problems and actual solutions – those in development or already on the market. Examples of ground up innovation addressing current needs such as rapid urbanisation, counterfeit products and the regeneration of traditional practices to name but a few.


Good design has a place to not only making daily life aesthetically pleasing, but also functional was the clear message.


The multi-functional Khanga Collection (Mr. Somebody & Mr Nobody)


The showpiece of the 3 day expo was curated with five compelling phrases completing what their interpretation of “Africa is” today. They included Sharp, Urban, Tradition Reinvented, Resourceful and Transformed.

Designs that have garnered considerable press were paired with less familiar items that made it a particularly rewarding space to visit. The gallery like setting elegantly side-stepped the well worn trope that ‘African design’ is inherently a riot of colour. The objects ran the gamut from muted colours palettes, slick metallic finishes to those with bold graphic treatments.



Mo Armchair (Diallo Design) and Ukhamba lamp (Ari Geva and Sian Eliot)



Highlights within the Sharp theme included the Sawa x Shine Shine collaboration. The Ethiopian made sneaker, dialed up the graphic levels of on its signature hi-top. The classic Tsagué sneaker was injected with vernacular style illustrations not unlike those seen on barbershop signs through out much of sub-Saharan Africa.



The Sawa Tsagué sneaker with graphics by Shine Shine


Another design that stood out (though not new) was Mo, the wire frame armchair by Cheick Diallo of Diallo Design based in Mali. In the lighting category, marrying an iconic form with a new material, was the Ukhamba lamp by Ari Geva and Sian Eliot. Based on the shape of the classic Zulu clay pot of the same name, this modern shade is made with woven metallic mesh. Its geometric bulbous form quietly echoing one of contemporary designs most celebrated modernist lamps, Poul Henningsen’s ‘Artichoke’ lamp.



The Piggybacking Goat Khanga Collection (Mr. Somebody & Mr Nobody)


The Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody’s khanga clothes were a definite crowd pleasure. The piggybacking goat hanging on for dear life print was both humorous and on point; its based on a real photograph making it all the more loveable. The duo behind the brand, South African born Heidi Chisholm and Sharon Lombard are defining a new niche – contemporary culture meets kitsch in a fun way. Their Boxes To Die For, are a perfect example. Riffing on the Ghanaian fantasy coffin phenomenon, this miniature take (also hand-carved in Ghana) could be the next to die for storage unit perfect for burying your clutter.



Boxes To Die For – The luxury German Sedan Box (Mr. Somebody & Mr Nobody)


Rounding off the category was Series 2, the sisal reed baskets combined with 100% recycled fabrics from Swaziland by Gone Rural and Philippa Thorne. These eye catching show stoppers were placed throughout the exhibition space, showing the prospects of a traditional practice getting a face lift with a fluoro colour palette.



Series 2 (Gone Rural)



For the Urban theme, the curatorial emphasis was on rapid urbanisation and how the unique characteristics of a given city whether it be Lagos or Kigali, should inform the design solution. The selected projects included ideas for the built environment, from temporary housing, to innovative architectural projects and material development.

One particularly fascinating material was the particle board made from agricultural waste designed by Charles Job of Bern University of Applied Arts in collaboration with Ahmadu Bello University, the University of Nigeria and Patrick Kaiser.

The idea in a nut shell – to create an easy to assemble building unit from readily available local agricultural waste material (ie. corn, rice, barley, wheat and groundnut). So killing several birds with one stone the material is supposed to reduce dependency on limited raw material sources, and also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

For a material that shows graphic qualities, aside from being a ‘green’ building material, it will be interesting to see how this ‘building block’ will shape the urban fabric of Northern and Eastern Nigeria – where it’s slated for use in the development of affordable housing.



Research and development of particle board made from re-purposed agricultural waste


Reminiscent of Freitag (the global brand that made its design mark transforming waste truck tarpaulins into trendy design bags and accessories) this next project has a similar genesis. Street Sleeper by Oliver Brain is a small social business initiative at least for now, that intercepts advertising billboards heading for the landfill and transforms them into compact sleeping units. These durable sleeping sacks offer a ‘temporary’ shelter from the elements for homeless individuals. The same price as a night at a shelter, Brain’s initiative brings jobs to the Cape Town community it serves.



Makoko Floating School model (NLÉ Design Architecture and Urbanism Practice | Kunlé Adeyemi)


An architectural solution for the Lagosian floating community of Makoko is the celebrated school designed by architect, Kunlé Adeyemi who also spoke at this year’s conference.

Before launching his own outfit, NLÉ, a design, architecture and urbanism practice with offices in Amsterdam and Lagos, the architect logged nearly ten years at Rem Koolhas’ practice OMA. With serious architectural expertise and pedigree, he has turned his attentions towards projects in the global south, that need to bridge critical gaps in infrastructure and urban development. The floating school is an excellent example of this philosophy in practice.

The prototype structure adapts to changing water levels, such as tides or extreme conditions like flooding and storm surges. It’s designed to be green, using renewable energy, harvesting rainwater and recycling organic waste. In a city without a master infrastructure system offering services like sewage, self-contained solutions such as this school, are not only forward-thinking they are essential.

Along with notable names like the Adeyemi’s and Francis Kéré’s, the exhibition was true to its goal to also showcase emerging/younger outfits. Design office-cum-think tank,  George Periclès based out of Kigali, Rwanda showcased New Rugo Social Housing. This architectural program mines local Rwandan traditions and values to propose a sustainable, modern typology fitting for the locality.

Many of the ‘Urban’ projects coherently raise the importance and efficacy of local solutions for local needs. Another equally significant point was that good design negotiates the tenuous balance between function and form. This point was humorously hit home when I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the conference’s guest speakers, renown Japanese product designer Naoto Fukasawa. Gathered at one of the Design Indaba functions we had a candid conversation, where he told me his inspiration for new design often comes by looking for the ugliest products around to re-invent. One need only look at his humidifier, to fully comprehend the power of design. Even mundane items don’t have to be an eyesore.

So to see projects within the Africa is Now umbrella that from inception already aim to reinvent the urban fabric in keeping with a local context and heritage is encouraging. While these projects may only seem like a drop in the proverbial bucket, we shouldn’t forget about the ripple effect. That these attempts, successes and even failures will go towards germinating and inspiring other ideas, and solutions. Design after all is about find good solutions to human problems, and there is no shortage of problems.



Cone nested stools (People of the Sun & Rentaro Nishimura), State of the Nation basket chair
(Designers without  Borders x Sian Eliot & Costa do Sol weavers)



Tradition Reinvented, the self-explanatory statement featured several stellar examples. The ‘Cone’ nested stools made by the Malawian non-profit People of the Sun in collaboration with London-based designer Rentaro Nishimura was an interesting juxtaposition of old meets new.

The old being the tradition of basket weaving practiced throughout many rural areas of Malawi married with the new – the repurposing of the technique to make not only a stool, but a space saving one. The second smaller stool fits within the larger, and voila a clever stacking solution. When furniture designers consider producing new items, they need to address not only storage but shipping constraints. This set neatly maximizes space with its 2 in 1 solution.

We live in an age where the re-purposing of material, up-cycling and at the very least not down-cycling are becoming strong considerations for industrial designers. Whether you walk the streets of Addis Ababa or Dakar, one common problem is the proliferation of plastic waste and garbage lining their city streets. Not only is unsightly but all the other environmental and health issues that go with it, make it a problem that needs serious thought and addressing.



Taboo low stool (Ayse Birsel and Bibi Seck)


The New York based design duo Ayse Birsel and Bibi Seck used this particular issue as the starting point for Taboo, an indoor/outdoor furniture system that transforms plastic waste.

Collaborating with a Senegalese septic and cistern manufacturer, they developed a low seating and table design made from 75% recycled garbage and plastic bottles. The waste product is processed into a confetti-like mixture which gives Taboo its mosaic pattern. This look was in fact inspired by the broken tile floor motif, ‘careaux cassées’,  popular in Dakar.  With 12 lbs of plastic trash transformed into one organic shaped furnishing gem, which have even made their way into MoMA’s PS1 museum, it shows that one man’s trash can surely become an other man’s treasure.

Throughout the continent there are so many traditions when it comes to cloth; I always feel a pang of pain with I see the limiting phrase African fabric. Aside from it typically being a red herring for wax cloth or kente fabrics, it belies the truth that there as so many different traditions of cloth that vary from region to region and cultures. For instance Mali has a vast and long history of fabric treatments with natural based dying techniques.



Bogola Throw (Ndomo)


Located north east of the capital Bamako, in the city of Segou is the social enterprise Ndomo. Their 100% organic cotton pieces are made by young men taught the local practice of weaving, dying and making textiles. They use traditional dying techniques such as ‘bogolan’ that utilises earth hence the term mud cloth, ‘basilan’ vegetable colouring and gala, natural indigo.

When the term traditional is used, perhaps our expectations can be of an aesthetic that looks staid.  The Bogolan Throw however is a wonderful example of how the intelligent kernel of age old techniques (ie. traditional crafts) can become the basis for contemporary design.

Other beautiful examples of Tradition reinvented also included the State of the Nation basket chairs by Designers without Borders in collaboration with Sian Eliot and the Costa do Sol weavers. The baskets are woven in Mozambique and chairs assembled in South Africa.



The designs brought together under the ‘Resourceful’ theme highlighted numerous technological solutions both lo and hi-tech.

One of the highlights was the Roadless wheel system prototype by Malawian designer Ackeem Ngwenya. His graduate project at the Innovation Design Engineering program at RCA in London, literally is about re-inventing the wheel. If you have ever gotten stuck on a muddy road, or tried to get through a road with more potholes than smooth surfaces this solution sounds like a god send. The idea is that the diameter/contact area changes to suit the terrain. That said, Ngwenya inspiration for this idea came from the common practice of head-loading – the carrying of goods on one’s head particularly in remote areas where this is no infrastructure. His tire research prototype, if developed further might one day allow vehicles to drive in places with no roads.

If you are accustomed to getting your medicine at the local pharmacy and never wondering if the medicine is a fake or not, this idea will seem incredible. As it turns out 30% of all medication sold throughout sub-Saharan Africa are counterfeit. The Ghanian cloud-based platform and app mPedigree Goldkeys offers consumers a realtime mechanism via SMS to independently verify that they are indeed buying a certified product.

From the lo-tech spectrum was the ingenious anti-bacteria and anti-mosquito soap ‘Faso’ by Moctar Dembele and Gérard Niyondiko. Based in Burkina Faso,  their special formula soap made with herbs, shea butter and lemongrass presents an affordable and accessible anti-malaria prevention product. With half of the world’s population still at risk of catching malaria, this small idea packs a big punch.

Opera Village ( Francis Kéré and Christoph Schlingensief)


On the poetic side of things was architect Francis Kéré and the late Christoph Schlingensief project, Opera Village in Laongo, Burkina Faso. Kéré has put into practice his ethos of designing locally replicable architectural solutions like the award winning Gado school project. This project is no different. It is a master plan design for a new settlement with prototype structures built using readily available local materials such as clay, laterite, cement, gum wood and loam.




Nostalgia bag (Dennis Cheune/Vernac)


In the fifth and last thematic zone, design that reinvents materiality aptly came together under the title ‘Transformed‘. The savvy ideas included the Nostalgia bag by Cape Town based fashion designer Dennis Cheune. His ‘China bag’ inspired collection of fashion and accessory items, re-interpret this ubiquitous pattern and carry-all-bag into a range of sweaters and designer hand bags.


Blantyre Jars (People of the Sun, Zochita Zambiri, Magobo and Warm Hearts)


And lastly the Blantyre Jars from Malawi which re-purpose used wine bottles into designer objects/containers. The mahogany wood lids, add a sculptural element which takes them from ordinary to elegant and even reminds me a little of Constantin Brâncuși’s famous organic sculptures/figurines. The jars, named after the Malawian economic capital are made by three different businesses. Zochita Zambiri process the bottles, Magobo make the wooden lids and Warm Hearts make the packaging made from recycle paper and card. The project is another initiative of People of the Sun, a nonprofit social enterprise based in Malawi that mobilise rural and urban informal artisan initiatives.

Written by Missla Libsekal.


All photos © Another Africa except the particle board image which is courtesy of Design Indaba. All rights reserved.




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