By: Mike Muiya
Posted: Jan 15th, 2019

There is one design principle that remains constant that has and continues to stand the test of time; sustainability. In Africa, sustainability is largely environmentally and socially driven in the preservation of our rich culture and the natural environment that our natural resources including flora, fauna and people thrive in.

Led by a deep passion for sustainability, my undergraduate studies had a focus on sustainable design in interior design for the promotion of cultural heritage. This interest in sustainability inspired my company name, Design Sustain and subsequently attracted the owners of Ole Ntile ranch in Laikipia to contract me for their community hospital project.

Armed with my university knowledge, I set off to my first major project totally unaware how life changing this experience would be. The distance to the site and the means of transport was totally unfamiliar ground and transformed my thinking from a qualified design consultant to a design student in community design.

We left Nairobi early one morning and boarded an increasingly interesting array of transport vehicles including an overloaded matatu, a truck ferrying sand, goats and people to arrive at the ranch in the evening. The stop overs did nothing to prepare me for the moment when we had to repeatedly alight and walk beside the vehicle as the overloaded van traversed the wild terrain and then get back on to continue the trip. Suffice it to say; when we hit the sack, nothing could have kept me awake for more than a few minutes.

The site briefing the next morning with the foreman was my first shock due to the absence of the usual construction briefs and layouts. The briefing was a short introduction to the way of life of the people and the wild animals in the ranch. Henry the foreman said, “You will work closely with the Morans (young Maasai warriors) and teach them the designs needed and how to implement the design; if extremely necessarily you may be assisted by your technicians from Nairobi. If you want to survive with the wild animals, make sure you keep within the hospital fence, do not use perfumes or perfumed oils as they irritate the animals and always go to site in the company of a ranger or moran.” He then walked out and left us to our devices. 

Initially what shocked me the most was the fact that I needed to introduce the morans to design, teach them how to use it and implement the plan seamlessly. How would this even work yet they had no formal design training or something close to it? What could we do other than start? After a few sessions on design ideas, standard measurements, sketching, and an introduction to new materials we fondly called ‘Vitu Za Nairobi’ (things from Nairobi), work begun and kept a good pace.  

As we proceeded, teaching and explanations of complex ideas harnessed examples from their way of life like the ‘manyatta’ construction to help create clear understanding. In the end, it was absolutely impressive seeing the previously untrained ‘shuka’ (skirt) wearing morans set ceramic floor tiles like professionals in the city! One young man expressed an interest in drawing and painting, and we tested his interest and skills to paint two murals using the wall paints available. In the end, we had one mural on one of the hospital walls and another on a big used board.

The project confirmed the thought process that ‘Design is a universal language.’

There has been lots of debate over the years about what is the best approach for sustainable community development. The most common approach is top down where stakeholders decide on the development, its implementation, growth, delivery methodology and timeframe of the implementation with strict evaluation parameters. Even as it has long produced results, research reveals that it is not sustainable and a bottom up approach is better (Limkriengkrai, 2010). My master’s research established that community design led approaches are indeed the best options for sustainable community development.

Another question that rises often is, what actual role design plays in community development. In this case, the designer became the consultant, trainer and evaluator supporting a team of locals to do something new that would give them better lives. It included evaluating the materials used, space considerations, layout, system designs, signage, as well as building and finishing techniques. The design process is community led and implemented by the community thus allowing the community to gain new knowledge, creativity and technical skills.

The success of the project indicated that for a community to be sustainable it must be driven by its members who understand the environmental and socio economic values which are then turned into the key components of sustainable design.


Mike Muiya is an interior designer & design consultant, working as the Chief Designer at Design Sustain Ltd.

Art, design and love for environment have been at the heart of his eight years of professional practice. He is a highly motivated team player, ambitious and robust designer who offers quality concepts to meet and exceed consumer and environmental needs. A penchant for good craftsmanship offers him the opportunity to produce quality. His life goal is use to research and community participation to sustainably solve design challenges in Afrika and the World.