OK – The past week or so didn’t turn out as I’d originally planned and this blog post is well overdue, but despite my apparent silence, the DIY Kenya project has been progressing well and I have had some interesting experiences since I last posted here! 

On Sunday (1st Aug) I took an unexpected 3-night trip to Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya.  I was invited by the Director and Principal of the Kwale Homeopathic Centre to tag along with them whilst they tended some administrative duties in the city, leaving me free to explore during the day – great!  In Nairobi, I glimpsed a side of Kenyan life quite different to that of rural Kwale and I was very glad of the opportunity to scope out the city – with company – ahead of my two-week visit planned for the 17th of this month.

On Thursday (5th Aug), I was back in Kwale, and following the recommendations of the Homeopathy clinic staff I checked into the nearby ‘Kutazama’ lodge in Kwale for one night of relaxation and recharging and once again, a very different Kenyan experience!



On Saturday (7th Aug), sadly, I spent much of the day, debilitated with a stomach bug, but I’m much better now, thanks I’m sure, to the Homeopathic remedy I was prescribed by Marie – my first experience of Homeopathic medication!

The students and I have since resumed work on the DIY Kenya Design Project and are set to finish the remaining project prototypes and evaluation exercise by the middle of this week. 

We now have two prototypes of our ‘Kwale Clay Jiko Stove’.  Our friendly local maker ‘Jiko Man’ is back, this time with some helpers and they have been building our ‘Kwale Fuel Press’ and ‘Kwale Mosquito Trap’ which are due to be fired tomorrow (Wednesday).

The gardener and carpenter at the Kwale School of Homeopathy kindly volunteered to help with the construction of a rig to demonstrate our ‘Kwale Bamboo Guttering System’ which was finished a little earlier today and is working very well. 



The students are now also working on a banner which they have designed to advertise bloc’s stall at the Maker Faire Africa, Nairobi.  The girls are using a variety of local textiles and hand-woven materials to make a collage.  The banner will also include three icons based on the design challenges which they identified during the DIY Kenya project (Water, Fuel, Malaria).


So, that’s the news in brief, now here the ramble!:

‘The Jiko Man’

Saturday 31st July.  Just before leaving for Nairobi, I was able to arrange with a local maker in Kwale, who everyone refers to as ‘Jiko Man’ (Magambere is his real name), to make a prototype of our ‘Kwale Clay Jiko Stove’.  He worked on the production of two stoves over the course of a week (as his busy schedule allowed) making the stoves on-site at the college.

‘Jiko Man’ and I were not able to communicate very easily on account of my pitiful command of Swahili and his limited English, however, he was happy to interpret the drawings and card prototype that the students and I had produced, in order to make the stoves.  I always imagined that the stove would be crafted entirely by hand and with only simple tools, whereas ‘Jiko Man’ decided to first, create a metal mould with which to form the clay and then use this mould to produce multiples of the stove, allowing for variations in height and wall thickness each time. 

Once formed, the clay stoves were left in the sun to dry and then further hardened through wood firing. Each stove was built entirely from local clay, traditionally used to make Kenyan ‘Chungu’ cooking pots.

The first prototypes are looking good and we’re all looking forward to trying them out once they’ve been fired.  Our immediate concern however is that they’re rather heavier than we had imagined.  This weight is on account of the 1.5 inch wall thickness which the maker deemed necessary for the stove to hold its own weight!  Still, it’s important to remember that these are ‘prototypes’ and not finished pieces, and by the very act of making them, we have been able to highlight this potential problem.  Perhaps we can concentrate on developing a lighter version in the future?  I wonder if a thinner wall-thickness, a lighter clay or perhaps a lattice rib-structure might help to retain strength in the piece whilst also reducing weight.




‘Jiko Man’ has since produced prototypes of the Mosquito Trap and Fuel Press – also from local clay – and these will be fired on Wednesday 11th Aug.  My exchange with ‘Jiko Man’ has at times, reminded me of a comic strip that I first saw over 10 years ago as a 1st Year Product Design Degree Student.  You know the one…:

None of the prototypes have been made to look quite as I imagined they would.  Through the process of communicating the designs to the maker, design details have been misinterpreted and proportions have been skewed.  For instance; the circular design of our ‘Kwale Mosquito Trap’ has been realised as an oval because the maker did not read the technical drawings and was referring only to a ‘3D’ rendered drawing for instruction and was seeing the circular form in perspective. 

The most charming example of miscommunication was the time when it appeared that ‘Jiko Man’ had decided to start a small production run of improvised ceramic ash trays.  I assumed that maybe he was just using up the left-over clay in a practical way or perhaps making them to offer as gifts.  It then became clear that he had actually been working on our project but had interpreted the drawings of our ‘Kwale Banana Fuel Press’ as a circular ash tray with three round indents in the rim for cigarettes!  Looking at the computer-rendered visuals of the Fuel Press (below), I can see why he might have made such an assumption!:


Still, I am delighted by the results of ‘Jiko Man’s’ work and am actually quite glad that the drawings weren’t followed too prescriptively, not least because each design is intended as an open source concept which will inevitably be interpreted and adapted as each individual maker/user sees fit.  It has been useful, from a design perspective, to see how such adaptations might occur.  This experience has also served a welcome personal reminder in the importance of effective visual communication; the pitfalls (and the joys) of not getting it right first time!

Nairobi Visit:  Sunday 1st – Wednesday 3rd

We elected to travel to Nairobi by car; a very scenic, but also very tiring, 9-hour drive along the A109 highway that runs from Mombassa and divides the famous Tsavo National Park.

Day 1 in Nairobi and I was lucky enough to meet up with a friend of the Kwale Homeopathic Centre; Cas Rooseboom, a Dutch artist who had been delivering a range of educational programmes across Africa that engage school children and youth groups through collaborative art practice and workshops.  He was kind enough to let me tag along with him for a day of visiting his collaborators and students in the centre of Nairobi and to allow me to get a ‘feel’ for the city.

Cas took me to meet some of the students at ‘Slum Cinema’; a youth group that teaches documentary and video editing skills to young people living in slum areas.  The Slum Cinema films are screened locally (the students also organising and promoting the screenings) as well as to an international internet audience, thereby giving the students a platform for voicing their views and for personal expression. 

We then visited the Kibera slums where many of Cas’ colleagues live and work and where many of his art-based workshops have been taking place.  Despite the evident poverty and decidedly harsh living conditions of Kibera, I found this slum district to be predominantly a place of colour & warmth; of hope, joy and humanity.  The residents I met there were delightfully friendly, accommodating, supportive of one another and were clearly enjoying life with a sunny optimism, despite any immediate hardships.  I liked it.

Later that afternoon, Cas and I each hopped on the back of a “Boda-boda” or motorbike taxi to ride a short distance to the Jua Kali area of the city (that journey being the most thrilling and possibly dangerous experience I have ever had for 50 pence!).  The Jua Kali area is where hundreds of local craftspeople transform incoming scrap and sheet metal into all manner of new products which are then further distributed to the shops and markets of Kenya.  One of Cas’s contacts, a metal worker named Noah, treated me to a guided tour of the maze-like complex of bustling metal workshops, fiery-hot foundries and stalls practically bursting with metal goods. 

We saw great quantities of reclaimed food and gas cans being turned into Kerosene lamps; scrap metal being beaten, cut, melted, and welded into all manner of tools and utensils; sheet metal being manually formed into immensely strong storage and cargo boxes.  In one large, dark shed, fifteen guys hammered unrelentingly at heavy metal discs which they held in their bare, calloused hands to produce a mountain of ‘Chipati’ pans.  The sound of those fifteen hammers, all striking in stuttering succession, was incredible – like the peal of village church bells!  The scene was decidedly less ‘chocolate-boxey’!

One of the Jua Kali workers was so excited to see a ‘Muzungu’ visitor in his busy workshop, he leapt from his seat, grabbed me by the arm and, grinningly, tried to convince me to have a go at bashing the red-hot lump of metal at his feet into a set of four chisels.  I appreciated this seemingly kind offer, though perhaps he just fancied a break?!  With every step we took toward the glowing metal, I would instantly felt the ambient temperature rise an extra 30 degrees centigrade.  With no protective gear in sight, my ‘Health & Safety in the Workplace’ reflex kicked in and I politely declined the offer of the anvil.

Amidst a sea of mass-manufactured, hand-made products, many of them almost identical to the last, I was curious to know about the role of design in the Jua Kali district.  How did the initial idea for a product emerge in order to spawn these vast quantities of multiples?  How and when does innovation and new product development occur?  Do the Jua Kali makers ever cross-collaborate? Who’s working together and who’s not?  …and who is running this show anyway? 

Regrettably, I got so caught up in the sights and sounds of the tour, I neglected to ask any such questions on this occasion.  Fortunately, I’ll be able to conduct a follow up visit in just over a week or two.


I was so grateful to have been able to accompany Cas’ that day.  His prior knowledge of the city and network of friendly contacts meant that even after just one day in Nairobi, I had seen many things that I would otherwise have missed or perhaps not have dared to investigate alone.  …And so it has been for much of my time in Kenya: I cannot overstate the value of enlisting the help of someone with local knowledge and experience, whether it be for planning a day in the city; making the most of a short stay; gaining insights for a local design challenge or making your first prototype in a foreign land (and ensuring you don’t get diddled by a hiked-up tourist price in the process). 


On the journey back from Nairobi to Kwale, we all decided to take a safari drive via two of the national parks: Amboseli and Tsavo West.  I won’t bore you here with my stories of the Zebras and Elepants that delighted us so by crossing the road in front of us, of the magnificent Maasai herdsmen we greeted along the way or the clear views of the majestic Mt Kilimanjaro.

I’ll be blogging again before the week is out to let you know how the prototypes and evaluation exercise turn out!  Please check back again soon!

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2 Responses to

  1. ameliajohnstone says:

    More wonders and insights beautifully scribed well done, well done indeed, tales of ‘Jiko Man’ will I think commence for many months after your return he sounds delightful, endearing and resourceful, seeing the bamboo gutter come to life is amazing and so beautiful. Keep having a marvellous time and stay well!

  2. Catherine says:

    Mt Kilimanjaro (sigh). How wonderful.

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