The Pulse of Africa: Nii Commey Botchway, a South African design educator

by Atim Annette Oton

The Pulse of Africa is a series by Atim Annette Oton talking with Africans in Africa and across the Diaspora on Africa’s progress, issues on culture, technology and opportunities in this decade.

The interviews and discussions are with Southern Africans in Africa and in the West and  I interviewed is Nii Commey Botchway, a graphic designer, now a design educator in Johannesburg. Nii’s is unusual in that he has worked across Africa and Asia, and like most African educators, is well versed on his field and reads widely.

Nii Commey Botchway is a design educator based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He lectures visual communications at the Vaal University of Technology to undergraduate students, born in Ghana he grew up in Botswana and Lesotho before his family settled in South Africa. His interests lie in design and education and how both can be used as enablers in the development of individuals and communities in a wholestic manner especially in the Afrikan context using indigenous knowledge together with appropriate global learning’s. He has served as a jury member for the Danish organization INDEX: Design To Improve Life’s UNICEF co-sponsored international student Design for Education challenge, and is part of the visiting faculty at the Yonsei Index Design To Improve Live Summer School held at Yonsei University in Seoul , South Korea.

Atim Annette Oton: How do you feel about Africa’s progress and opportunities in your industry and city this decade (2010’s?)

Nii Commey Botchway: As a design educator I tend to view things with two lenses (as a graphic designer and as a teacher) so my answers will try and cover those bases. From a (graphic/advertising) design point of view I think the industry locally has gone through quite a few changes since the late 1990’s when I graduated and started working. Being a servant to commercial industry mostly, it has (as have most sector’s) been changed dramatically by the explosion in multiple media options over the past decade. Information now has countless channels of being disseminated to audiences and it’s not a one way communication from advertiser to consumer. Thus the world into which I am training future designers has moved from a very linear one of them just making things “look pretty’ to having to consider design in a holistic systematic manner.

As much as we are trying to educate that way for this “uncertain” future where change happens in months and not years anymore, I still feel that industry has not moved far ahead enough to be “ready” for these kind of individuals, even though it “claims” it “needs” them. Potentially the greatest development is design moving upstream in the value chain of what it can offer clients, however not many agencies are taking up that challenge. Another huge opportunity that lies on our doorstep is servicing the needs of the so called “bottom of the pyramid” market as designers and as educators who are to train a new generation to have the pre-requisite skill needed to do so. However the industry has traditionally (and still largely) been focused on training for a largely capitalist industry which was mainly servicing the minority white population, so the huge potentials at the “base of the pyramid” so to speak are still a blind spot, as most of the practitioners and our current curricular do not fully grasp the opportunities there, however this is slowly changing and I feel South African design education and industry (if it has a vision) can be a trailblazer by bridging that  gap between “developing and developed world” and how design can make an impact in both.

Design academia in South Africa has in my view will  have to “grow up”  and lead industry now and not just be at the mercy of market forces in what and how we train our students. We are world beaters in talking to the “developed” market via visual communications as can be seen at how well South African agencies and design studios do in international awards, we just have to realize the potentials in the developing sphere not just commercially but also socially in using design to come up with solutions to solve our pressing challenges. There is much talk about the “blurring of disciplines” and within that change and uncertainty there are also opportunities to design new modes of doing for the industry going forward.

Atim Annette Oton: How is technology, mobile telephones and social media changing Africa and your industry?

Nii Commey Botchway:  For me the biggest thing is the realization that there are “others” out there like me who share similar visions about the potential for this great continent. Before I felt people where working in silos in quite challenging environments, so one tended to feel as if they where swimming upstream alone. What Afrika* needs is for an eco-system of support structures for change makers as I call them. One works to try and effect positive change but tends to be engulfed by the quagmire of systematic mediocrity around them. With the rise of mobile technologies however, linkages are made possible and one is able to network as never before with similar like minded individuals. This has the potential to broaden opportunities and markets for designers’ products and ideas as now the whole continent and world are your marketplace. So even if the eco-system is virtual it is still a support structure that can nurture dynamic change and ideas which the continent needs.

From an educational point of view we have students who are supposedly more connected and informative than ever before but there tends to be a “shallowness’ to their insights and a “laziness” to properly using all the new media tools at their disposal. So even though one can find out anything about any subject today, you still find huge areas of “non-knowledge’ in their engagements with information and how to use that in their solving of challenges. It becomes more imperative then to be able to train real critical thinkers, innovators, inventors etc who are able to properly use the huge amount of data and information now at their disposal.

Atim Annette Oton:  What problems do you feel have to be overcome by Africa in you industry?

Firstly, there is a lack of education/knowledge about the sector, the large majority of Afrikans in my view still do not fully understand the value that the creative industries can provide both commercially and in building social cohesion and dynamism for our countries, which is ironic when most of the world views Afrikans as very talented when it comes to the creative fields. We need to learn how to add value to all our abundant natural wealth and not ship it of to be re-sold to us.

How do we do that? Though innovation, creativity and design I believe. As per the following statement from Sir George Cox – “creativity is the generation of new ideas, while innovation is successful exploitation of new ideas with design being the link between the two”. M-Pesa (the mobile based means of sending money that was developed in Kenya) is a prime example of that statement. Imagine if Afrika had dozens more M-Pesa type ideas?

Arts and Design (in fact the creative industries) are not career paths that the majority of Afrikan parents “respect” or encourage their children to pursue. Most black children are expected to become doctors, engineers or one of the more so-called “traditional” career paths. As much as Afrika needs quality trained scientists and engineers I believe we also need a generation of design minded individuals to look at out challenges and find ways of solving them.

Today though much progress has been made and the value of creativity, design and innovation is widely accepted and promoted by institutions and government’s world wide, it is still not readily seen as a viable career option by most in the black community. Recently Parsons: The New School of Design in New York held a conference ( about the same challenges as to the dwindling number of Afrikan-American students within the creative industries.

Thus these issues not only affect the creative industries in Afrika but the global black Afrikan population as well. In South Africa the situation demographically is not much changed 17 years after our first democratic elections. Black students tend to be in the minority in most of the creative industries and university departments, a problem I can attribute to 2 primary factors. One: a lack of role models within the black community for young people to look up to. Thus kids cannot see themselves aspiring to being say an industrial designer.

Secondly, there is a lack of understanding of the value of creativity in our school systems which sees that those skills are not encouraged within our educational structures. Most black schools don’t have any form of art or creativity subjects, I myself never had art/design at school. I had no role models who looked like me or had my experiences, thus in stating all of the above I am making the case for a designed effort by those of us who are trailblazers in the field to remember our challenges and empower ourselves to empower the next generation.

So for me, a value has to be placed on creativity and innovation from our school systems right through to university. Our educational systems also have to fully reflect this value system. This is not just  an ”Afrikan problem” but globally, as well as we now realize that our educational systems largely built for an industrial society in the 19th century do not meet the needs of a 21st century information and creative society.

Thirdl,y as a graphic designer working in the industry and most recently as an educator, I have always felt that the scope and dimension for our craft/industry to impact more fully on the social aspects of our people’s lives has not been yet fully realized. Design as a commercially viable undertaking has been fully embraced by brands, companies and the market place and a large percentage of educational output is thus directed.

Design on the other hand as a facilitator of positive meaningful social impact for communities that have been marginalised has not yet been something fully acknowledged either by a large majority of practicing professionals or those institutions which are tasked with training those individuals for the world at large and herin lies the challenge to be able to attain that balance in educating the next generation of designers.

So our “leaders” have to be made to understand the value of the creative industries for the long-term growth and development of the continent. If you think about it we are a market of over a billion people, so instead of looking to the ‘west or whoever to come save us’, we can look at ourselves to stimulate that growth and development through well thought out sustainable design and innovation solutions that look after people and environment, something most communities globally are trying to achieve now. Afrika can take the lead we need just men and women with the VISION and DRIVE to do so and that begins at the educational grassroots level.

(* Nii prefers to spell Afrika with a “k” as a way of honoring the continent. In traditional Afrikan languages “c” is non-existent as a phonetic of its own.)


5 responses to “The Pulse of Africa: Nii Commey Botchway, a South African design educator”

  1. Besides the fact that Botchway (now that’s a name, right?!) is correct with his reference to Afrika and not “ca”, he is makes a lot of sense as well in his views regarding the role design can and plays in the development of a people and of the continent. Lovely interview. Ta. By the way sometimes I prefer to type up my Africa in this manner: A-free?-ka.

    -bongani madondo

  2. I’m happy that Nii highlighted the Base of Pyramid design. This is perhaps where African designers have an advantage vs designers in the West. BOP designs need local wisdom, local knowledge, and local social understanding of local needs.These are virtues the Western designers lack. When we start from the local needs and marry that with whatever appropriate technology needed for its delivery of solutions, African designers can excel here. As for marketing, branding and distribution, there are much Africans can learn from the West but you need to adapt it to each product or service.
    Best way forward is to marry Western, African and Asian design centers and focus their collaboration on BOP designs. Tell me if you will start such a small select network. I’d like to be part of it.

  3. Great article Nii!! Following one of the “traditional careers”, this was a refreshing take on an industry I know very little about. The afro optimism is very prevalent throughout the article – a sentiment I share and identify with deeply. Africa needs to answer its own problems and lets look to develop more BOP innovative designers. Keep the flag flying Nii!

  4. Interesting article Nii! I think you are absolutely right about the lack of understanding of the value of creativity in the school systems. It is vital to encourage play and creativity from an early age and then continue to do so even after pre-school. There is so much talent wasted because there is not much room for creativity to develop in school. Not only in Africa…..

  5. Thank you Nii and Atim for this interview! I wish to see design on the continent as a problem solving tool in cities, education, health, etc. And as Adoma said we need to address our own issues!

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