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Designers in Africa birth of new boom industry: Africa is brimming with design talent and expertise. Many African-designed products have been international hits and more are on the way. Fayruz Hamed looks at some of the strides made to date.

Africans, we've always known, are some of the most innovative people in the world - but not many know that African talent in invention and design can be breathtaking.


For example, take South African Colin Vale, who developed a paraffin stove that extinguishes itself when knocked over, reducing the chance of shack fires. Or Malawian William Kamkwamba, who created a wind turbine from scrap and bicycle parts to light up his house at night. Then there is Azemeraw Zeleke from Ethiopia, who transforms artillery shells into coffee machines.

Simple, inexpensive design solutions have proved both functional and transformational in Africa. But design does not begin and end with pragmatic innovations.

Consider, too, the Africans who have been making waves in design circles all over the world: Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye, for one, and South African fashion designers Gavin Rajah and Nkhensani Nkhosi. In truth, design - from humble solutions to great, visionary projects - is big business. The design economy has been growing worldwide, economic recession notwithstanding, and Africa is set to apply itself in terms of developing a creative design culture.

The challenges are great, of course. Africa cannot compete on a global scale in terms of product output and trade limitations mean that export is often restricted or simply not viable. But there has never been a better time for Africa to take advantage of new technology and the support of educational institutions.

To become truly competitive though, the continent must do things in its own way, with its own brand of excellence and innovation. Africans can grasp the best of design worldwide, as well as the best the continent has to offer and transform it into something new, compelling, beautiful and sustainable.

Small pockets of success show that African design development has reached the point at which it can play a very real role in addressing poverty and unemployment throughout the continent.

From craft initiatives in rural villages to multi-disciplinary industrial projects that boast global collaboration, design can boost a nation's GDP.

There is little doubt that South Africa is at the hub of African design initiatives. "South Africa leads the way in promoting design across Africa and within South Africa. Other countries can learn from South Africa," says Dr Richie Moalosi, a lecturer in industrial design at the University of Botswana.

"In Botswana, the government has recently set up the Botswana Innovation Hub of Design, which will play a very important part in promoting design," he says.

Moalosi believes that innovation is crucial to helping Africa's small and medium micro enterprises (SMMEs) to stay ahead of local and global competition. "If governments can help SMMEs to register their designs, intellectual property rights owners will reap rewards from their innovations," he says.


Key growth area

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki named the creative industry as one of the key growth areas in South Africa -and he also underlined a crucial factor in terms of the success of creative projects: government buy-in. Without the support of governments, many design projects will never reach fruition.

Then again, as Ravi Naidoo, founder of the Design Indaba conference in South Africa, has pointed out, governments cannot do it alone. Collaboration is key.

Success stories have inevitably involved political will, private sector initiative and innovative individuals working together to create bright design solutions in Africa for Africa. Take craft workers, for example, whose traditional art and handicrafts can support whole families. South Africa's Department of Trade and Industry has pointed out that the country's sub-craft sector contributes about R2bn ($200m) or 0.14% to the country's GDP each year.

The craft sector empowers rural women. It can contribute $500m and 20,000 more jobs by 2015 if given the necessary financial backing. South Africa's handicraft sector has gained a sophistication that is now gaining currency abroad, which can only be good news.

The South African Bureau of Standards agrees that design is one of the most important tools for competitiveness in the new economy. Functional and well-designed products will be globally competitive, while moving South African exports up the value chain and drive economic growth.

Raw commodities like platinum can be used to create award-winning jewellery. On the recycling front, recycled bottle tops and bath-plug chains can be used to make mats or chandeliers - and become hot property in the process. It is all about transformation, which lends sustainability to design initiatives.

While government and private sector initiatives exist, there are two ways to showcase the creativity on the continent. One is to recognise design excellence in Africa, such as the Design for Development Awards that look at innovative products designed and developed on the African continent.

The other is to promote more exhibitions that showcase what Africa is capable of. One strong example of this is Design Indaba Expo, now in its fifth year.

Adrienne Viljoen, manager of the SABS Design Institute and originator of the Design for Development Initiative, feels that design is making strides onthe continent.

"The concept of designing for development is now so embedded in the South African designer mind that products which would have been selected previously for the Design for Development Awards are now part and parcel of our Design Excellence Award entries and winners," she explains.

In October 2008, a total of 14 of South Africa's top product designs were recognised with Design Excellence Awards, proving that industrial design has achieved a level of sophistication and distinction in South Africa that should be emulated.
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Title Annotation:Industry
Comment:Designers in Africa birth of new boom industry: Africa is brimming with design talent and expertise.
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:May 1, 2009
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