“As a designer, what solution, or template for one, can I provide that meets the needs of practically every African?”
This is the question articulated by Nigerian designer Ukpong Ed’ Ukpong, a postgraduate student in the Industrial Design Department at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and a consultant on a research project in West Africa for Cape Town based (Industrial Design) firm … XYZ Design.
It is a question with which many African designers grapple. A question compounded by working on a continent where design, and its solution-finding potential, remain largely below the public radar and where there is minimal support and (funded) opportunities to demonstrate design’s capacity for addressing the social challenges facing Africa.
Ukpong, who is based in South Africa where his work includes the design and development of digital content for eLearning applications, has a list of competencies in the fields of digital learning, interactive new media design, Graphic Design, Communications, Branding, and ICT. He is the holder of a BSc (Honours) Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. But his postgraduate diploma in Art Interactive (PgDA) Media Design from the University of Witwatersrand (Jhb) and studies in Informatics and Design at CPUT, place his professional feet firmly in Design, Technology and Interactive Media.
His visceral link to the continent fuels his belief that if only people here perceived the power of design and embraced design thinking as a methodology for addressing social needs, Africans would be a step closer to realising the continent’s potential for growth and development.
“I want to look at design from an African perspective,” he says. “The problems facing people in Africa cut across state boundaries. In Nigeria for example, with a population of just over 155 million, the problems and experiences of the 105 million who live below the poverty line are not very different from those of about 10 million people (or approximately 30 per cent of the population) in Ghana, and 25 million (or 50 percent of the population) in South Africa who live in poverty. Our problems are all the same.”
In the face of social challenges that millions face in service-scarce communities throughout Africa, he shares a commonly-held vision that education is key to making Africa more self-reliant and improving people’s livelihoods. And he believes that design and design skills, combined with technology and the competence to use it, are what can ultimately help ensure that the continent becomes self-reliant, and that Africans are the beneficiaries of our rich resources and potential. “By designing learning materials and sharing them through platforms like the internet and new media we can create a critical mass of educated Africans that can determine and participate in the continent’s development,” he declares.
Ukpong references the burgeoning film industry in his home country, Nigeria, a subject of his research, to demonstrate the potential impact of technology. “In the past 15 to 20 years this industry has grown from one made up of people who just wanted to tell stories, to an industry in which people are defining how African stories are told using available, cheap technologies,” he says.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that the Nigerian film industry, a $2.7 billion (US) industry, competes with Hollywood and India in terms of the number of movies produced each year. “Nigeria’s so-called “Nollywood” produces more than 1,000 films annually, creating thousands of jobs and is the country’s second most important industry after oil. As a result, the Government has invested in the film industry, reforming policies and providing training to promote film production and distribution.” As UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura in 2009 pointed out, “Film and video production are shining examples of how cultural industries, as vehicles of identity, values and meanings, can open the door (not only) to dialogue and understanding between peoples, but also to economic growth and development.”
According to Ukpong this could not have happened without accessible, affordable technology. Nollywood, he says, has grown into an industry that thrives on low budgets and relatively low film production values.
“Hollywood has huge studios, top notch equipment and production technologies. But in Nigeria, with the most basic cameras and lighting and approaches to filming and post production, at least 50 films are made every week and moreover, they’re seen throughout the world.” MNet’s DSTV, he points out as an example, has channels dedicated to the screening of Nollywood productions which broadcast across Africa and the world; demonstrating the substantial viewership that Nigerian films generate.
This industry growth would not be possible if Nigeria tried to be like Hollywood or Bollywood. It would be more expensive to produce movies to the standards of Hollywood. But because of available, cheap technology for pre- and post production a new film industry has emerged from Nigeria and it gives a lot of Africans pleasure to see stories they can relate to. “I was in Congo last year and was surprised that in the shops on the streets you could see people watching the films shot in Nigeria, but also viewed in places like Congo and Zambia with French subtitles,” he relates.
Nigeria does not have formal cinemas, and film-makers work in video format which helps to keep production costs low. This also, as Ukpong points out, creates multiple opportunities for downstream economic activity. Sales, distribution and support for the entertainment industry are some of these. “Jobs are created. A lot of people are learning to be good editors, cameramen, lighting technicians; so this industry has sparked a new kind of job market which gives Nigerians, Ghanaians, Angolans and Zambians a case study of what creativity and enterprise can do for a country on a platform of technology.” Ukpong is also amazed at the new sites of consumption the industry has developed. “While in the Congo it was interesting to see in communities where most households don’t own TV sets, one person buys one and a dvd player and charges neighbours to view films.”
For Ukpong, the importance of this access to technology is the self-education and training that it has sparked. “There are no film schools. Technologies are accessible. People teach themselves and learn on the job, One of the exciting things about this is that it has ignited an on-line group of learners who want to learn about film production. There are also sites online offering free tutorials, as well as sites where you can pay to view Nollywood Films.
“No one would have imagined that such a scenario was possible, but with new technology emerging people are finding new ways of learning that work for them and the end result is that people can rely on themselves if they’ve trained or if learning is accessible to them. “