Seeing problems as parts of the solutions

Jennifer Adhiambo Otieno, Maseno University, and Helena Hansson, University of Gothenburg

The people living by Lake Victoria have been the victims of a series of unfortunate decisions over the past couple of decades. Fishermen have seen their catches dramatically reduced, causing the local markets to crumble.

Now, a team of Mistra Urban Futures designers, researchers and PhD students in Kisumu are creating new opportunities for the local communities through the Marketplaces project. 

Entrepreneurship and industrial thinking are now parts of the development of villages in the Kisumu urban region. PhD students from Kisumu and Gothenburg have added vital knowledge and creative solutions to the project. Now it is time to take a step back and see how it works.

Jennifer Adhiambo Otieno is a graduate student at Maseno University and a lecturer in the university’s Planning and Architecture Department, where she instructs students on surveying, GIS, map interpretation and cartography, among other technical subjects. Helena Hansson is a PhD student and industrial designer working with the KLIP in the collaboration between Gothenburg and Kisumu universities. Both researchers are part of the Centre´s Research School pilot and work on the Marketplaces programme with the KLIP:

‘We have set up projects where local people are making crafts out of recycled waste, as part of the project. At Dunga Beach, a small fishermen’s village, a research project started organizing the crafts community. This is our case study for entrepreneurship: now there are communities that could learn from each other. When I first came to Kisumu, there were no industries‘,Hansson explains.

The problematic water hyacinth, an invasive species that is choking off nearby Lake Victoria and destroying the fishing industry there, has become almost a symbol for the progress of the project. The plant also can be used as raw material for making handicrafts, which now has become an industry, partly with support from Business Sweden; the organisation sponsored 20 people to participate in an entrepreneurship training course.

But there are challenges in working as an academic with people in the community, Otieno says. 

‘The women want an output – they have to come home with something for their children at the end of the day. They are aged 25 to 45 years old, and have very little education. Many of them are single parents, and sometimes widows. They are the breadwinners of the family – so I have to choose a day when they are not at the market or dealing with fish. I go when they are drying, and that is when I am able to talk to them.’

‘However, we tell the policy-makers what we have seen, and share our observations with the county government. As we invite them, they become interested, so we can affect policy. For the water hyacinth, they know it is a problem and that the control is necessary. The hyacinth has been a problem, but this program can turn it into a blessing’, she continues.

The role of the researchers has changed during the process. Initially, they took part in very practical and pragmatic ways, helping people to design and use design processes to develop new products, for example with the water hyacinths as raw material.

‘You have to be very flexible’, Hansson explains. ‘To me it is important to design for implementation when I leave.  How can you step out of a process without destroying it?’


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