Africa: Ogojii's Jens Martin Skibsted On Africa's Strength in Digital Design and Why Design Is "One of the Most Important Things Happening On the Continent"


Danish designer Jens Martin Skibsted became interested in Africa but couldn't find much on Africa design. He launched a magazine called Ogojii - Innovation in African Design which has now morphed into an e-letter. Design is important for Africa's digital future in many ways so we asked Ogojii's founder to give us an overview of what's happening on the continent.

Where did the idea for Ogojii come from?

It came about from many different sources. I was writing a thesis on development communications and all the major clicks and information on African content seemed to come from outside the continent. I thought that was weird. I started to see how information was made by people in power rather than what's interesting to know and looking at the fringes of information. But nobody seemed to know what was happening with African design.

What form does Ogojii take?

Originally it was in print but then it became a weekly digital publication and an Instagram channel. We work with Ringier and it goes out alongside their publications on the continent.

Do you do events?

We've just held one in Kenya. We did a day on design thinking with the Nairobi Design Institute looking at how you can use different design methodologies to address issues. (Watch Tosh Juma talk about the work of the Institute: )

How does Ogojii relate to what you do in your own design business?

They are related but I get quite schizophrenic. It's more an interest of mine but it has a business bit. I have a bike company (Biomega) and I am a design entrepreneur with a design practice (KiBiSi with Bjarke Ingels). It's not clear to me but it's about design.

As someone with a bit of an overview of design in Africa, can you tell us what you think is happening?

Design in Africa is incredibly silo'ed. When Africans don't know what's going on, it's because of these silos. Added to that, you have language barriers. Then you have academics who are separated from practitioners and architects separated from digital designers and so on. It's extremely fragmented so one of the reasons for doing Ogojii was the idea of creating a common ground.

One area that is very big is fashion design and you can't say there's a specific epicenter because it's all over the continent. There's such a momentum that it's visible.

Architecture is getting some visibility and there are some very strong components. An international architect like David Adjayi has taken African iconography and exported it. People like Issa Diabate (of Koffi & Diabaté Architects) have been able to create a home base and get some traction. There's also a tendency to do churches and there's some interesting church design that goes alongside the growth in believers.

There are Africans who have taken traditional crafts and updated it in ways that are interesting outside the continent. A good example is Frances Kerri who is now based in Berlin. You have all these different "schools" of design happening simultaneously.

There's not much industrial design but mainly in Cape Town. But you have things like African car companies popping up everywhere, in places like Ghana and Uganda. So they design their own cars so there may not be much if you take an instant picture now but it will move forward.

A lot of art collectors made money in Chinese arts and asking themselves what's the next China? So you're starting to see sales of African art. (For example, the recent sale of the painting of Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu by artist Ben Enwonwu from 1974 which recently sold for GBP1.2 million at Bonhams Auction House.) You're also seeing craft makers who are saying to themselves: why can't I do a one-off artifact that could be sold for the same. But that's off in a silo linked to the arts scene.

Lots of designers here in Scandinavia would claim Nordic food as part of design and the same is beginning to happen to high-end culinary with a closer look at ingredients. You have super proteins coming out of Ethiopia with people eating insects. You take something that happened traditionally in Africa and put it in another context. Also my guess is that Africans are eating things like our own food and that FMCG design comes out of this process. So there will be African food packaging designed for supermarkets. So for example, there is a type of local cola in Tanzania.

The last big one is digital design. It's a cliché but it's true. When you look around Accra, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, there's lots of digital design. Take for example Kenyan start-up OkHi where you take pictures of your address and it gives you a location using GPS. This is useful in many other countries. Then there's mPesa and the whole cluster of applications around mobile payment in East Africa.

Where does Design Indaba fit into all this?

It's one of the things that sparked the idea of Ogojii. When I first went there, it seemed to be almost all Europeans. But it has changed a great deal and Ravi Naidoo is a powerful force (for design) and Design Indaba is the premier design conference on the continent.

So where will all these things lead?

Design is one of the most important things that will happen on the continent. People will start making products from things and making money from it. That's very important because it's how it started to grow in Europe. Development is looking at design thinking and new methodologies and it can be used to solve local problems.

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