By: Mike Muiya
Posted: Jan 22nd, 2019

Very few designers are interested in working with rural communities because of the many challenges that include physical distance, financial challenges, slow communication and unexpected challenges among others. Most designers prefer to do design work for mid to high income clients who pay well mainly because they are at the top of the economic pyramid. This is a good approach as designers get value for their time and resources but in working with rural and cultural communities, such as the Maasai of the Suswa valley, one clearly sees the negative effects the top of the pyramid has on the majority at the bottom of the pyramid in all its beauty.

The effects of the lifestyle of the tourists seen in these communities include waste dumping by individuals or executive lodges on a ranch, fencing that sparks conflicts between stakeholders like ranchers’ vs communities, wildlife vs human conflicts among others. Similar trickle-down effects are also seen in urban settings.

The Ole Ntile hospital project was one where the community learnt skills, building techniques and systems that they would later use to build the first school of its kind in the vast Maasai land. The fact that the project was headed and implemented by the locals built the community’s confidence alongside lasting relationships between the ranch owners, Kenya wildlife service and the community.

The results of the new found relationship were made visible in 2017 when skirmishes over pasture during the drought season erupted in the region between community herders and ranchers. Unlike other ranches, Ole Ntile ranch was not affected because the community had a sense of ownership since they ran the ranch activities, are involved in decision making on development and take a crucial part in the implementation. As a result, cattle rustling and poaching which was common in the area is said to have reduced. The system of communal cooperation can be emulated for community development in the country.

Fredrick Mwaura, who works with street children and people with disability in Nairobi, cites similar challenges. He further states that most problems experienced by the informal settlements in Nairobi, in the streets or among people with disabilities are solvable but innovators or designers are busy catering to the needs of the high end market thus no attention is given to key problems and they persist indefinitely.

Benson Kiptum, Program Manager at the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK) echoes Mwaura’s sentiments saying that this mindsets has ensured that very few designers are working on farm designs or products for farming practices and special needs. Though in reality it is at times hard living or even travel to parts of the rural Kenya or traverse through informal settlements of the cities, the most challenging part is the low allocation of funds to such programs that makes things ever more challenging.

There are key lessons to be learnt by all designers from these assertions:

First off, design is beneficial to everyone and is by far more beneficial to the community and the environment than most designers give attention to.

Second, designers need to challenge themselves to provide solutions for the whole community rather than be selective in practice because sustainability works well and produces better results in balanced social economic and environmental systems.

Third, the best practices of community development are community driven, design can easily become a major development enabler to create sustainable systems that will work for the community. This will in turn offer continuity driven by the creative thinking processes initiated by design.

All in all, there is a great need for designers to think through and find ways to commit resources and personnel to sustainable design ideas and options.


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.