New Solutions Needed To Sustain Africa’s Upward Trajectory

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According to the UN World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) 2024, Africa’s economic growth is expected to quicken slightly, with average GDP possibly inching up to 3.5%. Yet, debt sustainability concerns, fiscal pressures, and climate change present uncertainties. With this in mind, now is the time to move away from traditional, cookie-cutter approaches and consider how to unlock solutions to these issues in new ways that benefit the continent on a community level and can ensure that growth remains on an upward trajectory. 


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Nailah Conrad, Programme Lead at the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika at the University of Cape Town (UCT), says that this can be done through Design Thinking. “This is an approach that empowers communities to tackle these challenges head-on. Encompassing both a mindset and iterative problem-solving, it leverages design practices and qualitative methods to tackle complex societal issues, with a focus on prioritising people's needs.”

Communities are at the heart of Africa's growth

However, when it comes to Design Thinking, as practiced on the African continent, there must be an even stronger emphasis on putting people at the centre...Co-creation, where communities become design team members, not just passive participants, is critical. This approach elevates stakeholders involved to true partners in the process.

Transdisciplinary designer, educator, and researcher, Professor Mugendi K. M'Rithaa adds that communities have typically been exposed to numerous top-down development approaches that foster a culture of aid dependency.

Community participation, however, is the heart of African Design Thinking, ensuring the co-creation of solutions with, not just for, affected communities. By taking an approach that empowers rather than enables, this promotes ownership and leads to sustainable, impactful solutions that can address Africa's specific challenges and contribute to long-term economic growth.

Government support is essential to accelerate the process

Both Conrad and M'Rithaa emphasise the importance of implementation and support for Design Thinking projects to succeed. Conrad highlights the need for sufficient resources to reach communities, while M'Rithaa stresses the transformative potential of government buy-in.

A successful example is how the government of Malawi and UNICEF pioneered Africa’s first humanitarian drone corridor to deliver services to the country’s poorest and hardest-to-reach families. This has been particularly critical in situation monitoring in disasters, and the delivery of emergency medical supplies and vaccines.

Short-term thinking hinders progress

Professor M'Rithaa, however, identifies a significant hurdle to government adoption of Design Thinking: short-term outlooks. He contrasts countries like Singapore, which has a 50-year development plan, to African nations where leaders often only consider the next four or five years, depending on their country’s election cycle, meaning that their priorities tend to be short-sighted.

He observes that the case for Design Thinking is further hindered by the lack of immediate financial reward. “However, emerging evidence suggests significant long-term payoffs for government departments that adopt this approach.”

Design Thinking can shape the future

Exemplifying Design Thinking in action, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) implemented the Siyakha transformation programme in 2000. By listening to people on the ground, SARS co-created a service culture focused on the needs of the taxpayer. This resulted in a more streamlined filing process, leading to a significant increase in revenue collection. With over R2068 billion amassed in the 2022/23 financial year – a record for the organisation – these funds have enabled the South African Government to invest in crucial areas like social grants, education, and healthcare.

“If governments in countries which have embraced Design Thinking, such as Malawi, were to champion this approach, this would encourage its adoption by other governments, both on the continent and beyond,” shares Prof M’Rithaa.

There’s a Somali proverb which says, ‘be a mountain or lean on one’. So, if we can get government officials to have the humility to lean on other mountains, significant progress could be achieved.

“The complexity of challenges and issues we have to navigate are becoming more and more pronounced. However, I truly believe that the 21st century will be African, not by default, but by design. This is because there will be uniquely human challenges that only Design Thinking is equipped to address,” he concludes.

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