Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Designing in a Developing Context

At the 2014 International Development Design Summit (IDDS), participants split into eight different project teams. Those teams work in four different communities around Tanzania. During the five weeks of the summit, project teams have two community visits: the first with the goal of gathering information and the second with the goal of testing and refining prototypes. This year project titles ranged from Creating Value from Unused Avocados to Water Quality and Scarcity. I was selected to work on Livestock Fodder Production in Orkilili, a small Maasai and Wameru community near Kilimanjaro International Airport.

In preparation for our first community visit, my team generated assumptions that might hinder our design process. For instance, before visiting the community I assumed that land was shared collectively amongst community members. As my team expanded our discussion to include the assumptions of farmers in the community, I realized that designing in a developing country presents unique challenges. My lessons learned are largely based on comparison between my experience at IDDS and my experience in Olin College’s User-Oriented Collaborative Design course designing for Community Supported Agriculture Farmers in Suburban New England.

Tanzanians and other individuals from African countries have grown wary of foreign aid workers and organizations. More particularly, these community members might be suspicious of unfamiliar foreigners or those strangers who want to take their picture. For instance, my Malawian friend shared with me a common notion among Malawian communities. It goes something like this: One must be careful about trusting foreigners who come to help alleviate poverty. It is not even safe to close your eyes during prayer as these foreigners may take the opportunity to photograph you. The foreigners will then take the photograph of you with your eyes closed and fundraise for their own enrichment claiming you that you are blind. I was shocked to hear this notion.

Depending on a community's past experiences with traditional NGO’s who develop solutions for communities as opposed to with communities, those community members may not be fully honest with you. Community members might tell you what (they think) you want to hear. During a community meeting with farmers who owned goats and cows we asked, “How many acres do you have?” One farmer responded 4 acres. Later than evening our Maasai team member informed us that this particular farmer owned more than double the acres he reported. Learning this piece of information made my team even more determined to meet farmers individually at their own farms. 

Community members might not understand the work you do as a designer during the gathering information phase. They might describe to you their problems immediately rather than letting you observe them on their land farm. For instance, at community meeting after community meeting farmers told us about their problems. One particular problem was their need to migrate in search of livestock fodder during the dry season. Although we were able to meet with dozens of farmers in the context of community meetings, my team was only able to practice observing and asking at two farms during out four days in Orkilili. It is possible that the language barrier may have made it hard to explain our goals as designers. 

My main learning is that community members’ past experiences with development workers and organizations influence how they interact with you. Past interactions and stories with foreigners and foreign aid organizations create mental models and perceptions which are hard to change.

Pictured top left: my team asks one farmer about his current fodder storage practices ; top right: my team delivers our community presentation on the last day of our first visit to Orkilili ; bottom left: my team synthesizes our learnings into a problem framing tree and visual representation of the growing and grazing seasons; bottom right : my team learns about the advantages and disadvantages of hybrid vs indigenous cows and goats.

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