One year anniversary of experimenting with design and innovation tools for vegetable vendors in Nairobi’s slums

Felix Omondi, our lead innovation facilitator, reminds me today that its the one year anniversary of the first participatory design workshop held with mama mbogas in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s informal settlements. Categorized by us as the “tomato group” of B2C (business to consumer) vegetable vendors (mama mboga in colloquial swahili), these 8 ladies were the guinea pigs for all of us holding our breath, fearing to exhale, in case the entire concept fell apart at first contact.

Felix took the lead during this pilot sequence of workshops with the two tomato groups (B2C and B2B) of participants, since we were running them as a prototype testing exercise to evaluate the content and sequence design prior to scaling it out to the other three produce categories comprising of 6 more groups of participants. These photographs were all taken on 7th July 2020.

The first moment is always the most nerve wracking, when there’s a lot of figurative milling around and figuring out of what does it actually mean to facilitate a group discussion on the challenges faced by the participants due to the pandemic and its fallout. The young team of novice community knowledge workers had never facilitated such an activity, nor did they have any prior exposure to the things we take for granted from the practice of design – brainstorming, the use of flip charts, group discussions, and of course, facilitation of the entire session from setting up the room through to handing out tools for expression.

I remember telling them, behaving like a mother hen sending her defenseless chicks out into the big bad world, that “we could not fail” even if our entire workshop plan fell flat and participants didn’t show up or were too apathetic to enthusiastically engage with each other and the facilitators. Without that collaborative generation of creative energy in the room, facilitating group work can be challenging even for the most experienced of us. I said, look, all the funding organization requires is that we provide them with a small cash grant, a bucket of equipment like masks, soap, sanitizer, disinfectant, etc and a hot meal with meat in it. It’ll be a small respite from shouldering the burden of the challenges that the pandemic restrictions have placed on them.

These participatory design and innovation workshops were simply an experiment – the point, always, is to have fun. There was absolutely no pressure to perform. Go forth and enjoy. At worst, there will be some desultory conversation around the challenges. We won’t find out until we try. We had no idea of the surprises in store for us. One of the earliest was the discovery that all 8 participants were already sitting in their chairs ready and waiting in advance of the second session.

And now, one full year later? Many of these very same ladies you see here have implemented innovative practices to boost their business including calling their customers for orders before going to stock up at the wholesale market, home deliveries of fresh vegetables, and adopting the thinking tool introduced to help with planning expenses to manage their inventory as uncertainty and volatility continue with each phase of the pandemic.

We were able to reach 32 out of the 46 participants for a telephone survey last month who completed the sequential sessions last year for a brief follow up. Almost half have taken the initiative to adopt new practices and make changes to the established way of doing things, and almost a third are still using the thinking tools custom designed for their needs. 21.7% were enthusiastic in their responses, almost a year after the experience, expressing the belief that the sessions had facilitated innovation.

For instance, one wholesaler of bananas discovered the marketing power of sharing photographs of fresh inventory on social media, while two others have diversified into new and parallel lines of business – in shoes, and in mosquito nets, to diversify the risk of trading only in perishable fresh produce. Others were not as enthusiastic. From the 32 who responded, just over a third did not have much to add on the topic of whether the takeaways from the workshops had been of any benefit over the past year. Our team member who called them feels that this could be due to the third lockdown that is ongoing in Nairobi adding to their burden and thus influencing their mood since many were enthusiastic enough participants during the sessions. It has been a hard year for all of us.

Given that the entire project was conceived as a research through design experiment, I do not have a basis on which to compare these results against others. On the other hand, there are at least 15 informal traders in fresh vegetables operating in Nairobi’s informal settlements who have adopted design thinking and innovation as part of their business practices, as evidenced by their responses one year after the fact. Innovation can be democratized.

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