Esther Kute

Make It Circular

This is a bonus episode of Afrika Design about circular design. It's in partnership with What Design Can Do and their 'make it circular' challenge. We discuss examples of design from all over the world and some specific ones from Kenya and Africa. There are examples of culture, nature, materials, storytelling, and even water preservation. We also discussed that sometimes the best design thinking comes from experts in fields other than design.

Thank you to Esther Kute who joined us for the episode. You might recall Esther was our very first guest on the podcast and you can actually check out that conversation to hear her talk more in detail about her experience as a breakthrough product development manager at Bata.

Happy Holidays! See you in 2023:)

*For the best experience, please use a headset/earphones.


Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Adrian: Hey, this is a bonus episode of Afrika Design about circular design. It's in partnership with What Design Can Do and their 'make it circular' challenge. Go check out for more information Even though the deadline for the challenge is on January 11th, 2023, the knowledge and information in this episode will only age better with time as we uncover how design can become more circular.

[00:00:29] We discuss examples of design from all over the world and some specific ones from Kenya and Africa. There are examples of culture, nature, materials, storytelling, and even water preservation. We touch on what we wear, what we eat, how we build, how we package, and what we buy. We also discussed that sometimes the best design thinking comes from experts in fields other than design.

[00:00:52] Thank you to Esther Kute who joined us for the episode. You might recall Esther was our very first guest on the podcast and you can actually check out that conversation to hear her talk more in detail of her experience as a breakthrough product development manager at Bata. Bata is actually the biggest footwear manufacturer in the world. So, she has some really relevant experience for this conversation. Like I said, it's a recording of a Twitter space, hence the connection and the microphones weren't as good as usual. We hope the subject matter makes up for


[00:01:27] In the meantime, we've also uploaded a number of episodes to the Nairobi Design Week YouTube that previously weren't available with video. That's largely some of the newest episode that you've heard in this season, so now you can have another way to check them out. 

[00:01:44] Our next episodes will be part of our shifting narratives collaboration with the British Council and Kampala Design Week. Starting with Lulu Kitololo, an incredible Kenyan illustrator who's turning her experience to teaching others. Have a wonderful

holiday period. We'll see you in the new year. 

[00:02:02] Welcome, Esther.

[00:02:03] Welcome. I'm just gonna invite you to speak. Hope you guys can hear me okay. We're just starting out. I'm just about to pin some tweets to the space so you guys can see some examples. There's some examples of winners from last year. Last year was a no-waste challenge, but it's very, very, very close as well to what this is. So,

hopefully, you'll be seeing those appearing and now I can come back to this space. So, I'm happy to speak at you guys, but it's also, you can see it's a small session so far. 

[00:02:37] We're here to find out and to talk about what design can do, discuss maybe some ideas. So, Esther. I'd love to hear as well what you've been working on. I know we've got Victorius here. They make amazing jewelry. They just did the jewelry for Kibera Fashion week, in fact. We've been in touch for quite some time now, so really happy. I think you guys would be a perfect fit.

[00:03:01] So, I've shared some links here from the beginning. So, we're just gonna talk about some examples of circular design, discuss what the 'make it circular' challenge and how to apply, and so on. And I can tell you straight away, the deadline is 11th of January, so there's over a month remaining.

[00:03:24] And it's a very kind of friendly application as well. They're not trying to trip you up, they're just trying to find out what really, what you are proposing. So, Nyungu Africa make these sanitary pads out of pineapple leaves and corn husk fiber. They were

a winner last year for the 'no wastes' challenge.

[00:03:44] And equally you can see how that would be as a biodegradable, very circular designed. This could be really applicable as a new material. Maybe there's other things that can be made from local materials, from materials that are in our culture that maybe we're coming back to. Sometimes, you know, we've left a lot of things to

consumerism, and we've bought a lot of things and now it's exciting to find that a lot of these solutions were in front of us a lot of the time.

[00:04:16] So, Nyungu Africa, they've got each of these has a video attached to the tweet as well. If you look at the pinned tweets, so you'll be able to check those out on YouTube as well. Each one's like 50 to 60 seconds long. I'll talk about this one as well

because it's, it's really brilliant that non-designers or people who might consider themselves non-designers apply for this as well.

[00:04:41] And actually a lot of the time its design thinking combined with a different skill set, such as in this case, chemistry. So, these guys LeafyLife. They use old used diapers that children have used and they turn into fuel and construction materials, and then they use those in informal settlements. So, it goes back into supporting the


[00:05:08] And of course, they have a social impact as well. They have an environmental impact. They have a positive business impact and a community impact. So, it's good to consider that type of impact as well as we really need to consider when we design our communities. So, the point I was making here is that is great to see people bring other skills from outside design and combine it with design thinking and

then utilize their unique knowledge set to create something like this.

[00:05:40] The third one is Omiflo. So, Omiflo Africa created a hydroponic system, and the plants within that system filter potentially harmful chemicals as well. So, this is really, really to the point. And really actually, everything, like they say, everything starts with water. We know from our experiences as well with the projects some of us work on, how crucial water is. And just being in Nairobi, we can feel that water's being cut off all the time. And it's a crucial resource. So, the way that Nairobi River and a lot of other rivers look around the world, it's important that we have these solutions that incorporate nature that already exists.

[00:06:25] Perhaps it's actually living design. Another phrase that I really think is important is life-centered design because human-centered design is well and good for humans, but we cohabit this planet with many other species, many other life forms. So, we really should be focusing on life-centered design as well, and seeing how we can work with them to, to make our planet better, to get ourselves out of the situation.

[00:06:56] So, I encourage you to go to, and actually on the website itself, they have some really interesting blog posts as well. One of the blog posts talks about basically built-in obsolescence and how we've created this environment where we keep buying new things rather than building things and making things that last for longer. So, there's a blog post titled 'Making Nothing New'. And it talks about microplastics in the system and how actually one of the points there is use what exists. So, there's a lot of natural, underutilized resources that we have, or even existing commercial resources, let's call it. So, you may have used clothes there. I know there's Africa Collect Textiles, for example.

[00:07:57] They're doing an amazing job collecting the textiles, but also looking at what they can turn those textiles into. Everything from rugs to bags to even recycled clothing as well. They've taken a security firm's uniforms and turned them into bags. So, looking at what's around us, looking at the materials, the tools that we have, and also the ways of living which comes back to indigenous ways of living. Indigenous, we tend to assume is old, or at least is in our past culture, it's our heritage. But actually, indigenous culture is also urban culture. So, every city has its own indigenous culture. These are things that when we pick up small things, perhaps things are done slightly differently in Nairobi or slightly differently in Mombasa, and that opens us up to a new opportunity.

[00:08:57] Maybe it's actually the culture of the people of the city, where they walk, how they treat the city. Maybe it's an action that they perform that could be a trigger that could act as a positive reinforcement. So, back to these blog posts again, there's

many more actually examples as well of successful projects, of projects that they like to see. And a lot of these projects feature nature, but some of them feature things that are existing in the city as well. So, like things like fast fashion, you know, that's a big problem we face. So, looking at... even if you don't have an idea, it may be that you list down all these resources, all these things that you see in daily life and, and seeing how we can turn a negative, what is it?

[00:09:51] Maybe it's sludge on the road, maybe there's plastic bottles in the river. And seeing how we can use those resources to turn them into something useful. It could be natural materials or it could be those materials that, that have been produced in factories. Another good place to look is actually in trash or in factories. If you have access to a place that makes stuff, maybe it's a print work and maybe they've got runoff water.

[00:10:19] Maybe it's a leather tannery. Maybe it's a metal shop or something. All these places have waste materials, and they're good for research, good for insights. It's good to go into a place like that and, and kind of just understand, ask people questions

and get insights on what issues they face.

[00:10:42] Maybe it's a particular part of a manufacturing process, so actually with a lot of successful ideas, the idea doesn't have to be very broad. It can be really, really narrowed down into a particular part of the process. And so, as an example, there's black paint being made out of the carbon gathered from car exhaust pipes. They're finding other ways to gather this carbon. You know, these carbon sinks kind of big surface areas that, that absorb the pollution. So, they're gathering all of that carbon, all of that dirt, and they've turned it into really black paint. So, not only is it a symbol, but it's also a practical use for it.

[00:11:34] So, Esther amazing to have you here. How are you doing? And what would you like to say? And maybe you can introduce yourself as well. Would love to hear from you. 

[00:11:44] Esther Kute: Yeah. Hi Adrian. I've been wanting to join this and today I thought, oh, I have some bit of time. An introduction to myself, I'm a designer. I love design, but I think my list of things that I can do has been growing over time.

[00:11:58] So in the past, I think one year or so, I've become a published author in two books, which is amazing for me. And of course, both are talking about design. One features work I've done as a textile and fashion designer. And recently, I mean, I've been doing a lot of things teaching design also. I'm a Ph.D. student developing a system for footwear design or making available to persons with disabilities.

[00:12:22] So, at some point this year I was in Germany. We were working in a residency that the main aim was learning how to tell transmedia stories about sustainability. So, how do you combine different mediums? Audio, visual, product design, all these things,

other areas coming together, storytelling to be able to tell stories.

[00:12:43] I'm actually a product and industrial designer also. But I was wondering are we able to submit other kind of works so long as they're within sustainability? So, for example, in Germany, we were collaborating on the solid waste problems that we are

experiencing in different countries in, in the world.

[00:13:01] And we had people coming from Ghana, Kenya, South America, guys in Germany, guys in Europe basically. And for us, our main area of interest at that point was water. How a lot of what we are doing is affecting water. You were talking about, for example solid wastes, fast fashion, and built-in obsolescence, which leads to a lot of solid wastes most of the time.

[00:13:24] And also waste produced as a result of mass production. And this affects our water sources a lot. There's a lot of contamination with the metallic waste, heavy metals and all these other kinds of things. So, we are sort of reducing the amount of

water available to us to use as freshwater. We were working as artists and designers to tell stories that could sort of shock people to take action because everyone knows climate change.

[00:13:53] Everyone knows sustainability, oohh the environment is getting damaged. We came to also realize a lot of times, individuals, as we are living our day-to-day lives,

most people sort of don't. I don't know if it's not care per se, but there's that thing of you become indifferent over time. So, people have sort of become indifferent because the problem feels like they're not the ones who can be able to solve it.

[00:14:18] One of the purposes of us having this exhibition, we had an exhibition in Berlin. We also had a summer university about discussions of storytelling. One of the things was how do we get to the person nearest to us on a day-to-day basis to make them realize that individual action can actually lead to an overall mass action that can really help in sustainability.

[00:14:40] You know, like something like boycotting fast fashion. I boycott fast fashion, it leads to one person, one other person boycotting fast fashion. I was with my friends over the weekend and I'm telling them, do you know if you buy this kind of clothing, it leads to this kind of waste in the water, and then if you throw it away, you have to buy another T-shirt.

[00:14:58] For example, that t-shirt, when you, it's being created, it's dyed with heavy metals, you know, that kind of thing. So, how do you tell these kind of stories? So, I was wondering when we are submitting our projects, is the concentration on physical outcomes only or is the concentration also on these kind of things like an exhibition that can be done to tell stories and sort of in a way that feels very grassroots level?

[00:15:21] Yeah. I've spoken too much, but thank you. 

[00:15:25] Adrian: No, not at all. That's really inspiring. So, to answer your question, I think there is a part within the application in terms of impact and sustainability of the project as well. So, it could be that you capture that, you know. I think first maybe you're talking about storytelling, right? If there's storytelling to be done and whether

that's through an exhibit or through an educational piece or something in the communities, if, if it has impact, then I think they would be open to it because it's kind of thinking outside of the box as well.

[00:16:01] And it could have real impact, especially if, I guess if it has some physical, tangible, maybe experience to it. Maybe people go into the space and do three short exercises that explain to them how to be better consumers or something. And, and that takes us into fast fashion, which of course absolutely agree with you.

[00:16:23] I've been trying to cut out the, the fast fashion and not replace it all with, with handmade stuff. And it's, you know, whenever someone compliments something now that I have, I say to them that because I chose to pay someone to make it and really, you know, make the point that it's a piece of clothing that I'd like to have because I, I didn't used to have that viewpoint.

[00:16:48] It used to be buy what you can and dress in it as deeply as possible. But I think it's a good thing to, to look into your clothing pieces as items. Just like if you wanna have a lamp or something, you wanna have it for many years. So, if you invested in an item of clothing that's ethically sourced, sustainable, and produced in an ethical fashion as well, then great.

[00:17:15] And I know Esther, you've got so much experience in terms of producing fashion with, with your experience at Bata and, and further across as well. Just to say as well to that, you know, what I said was because you said how to get the person closest to you, I think that's really important, that if we feel too small to solve the problem, then no one is going to do anything.

[00:17:40] It's clear that not one person, not one entity can solve all of these problems and lots of things have to align now for us to be in a better position as a planet or as a species towards our planet. So, really making that impact, if it's focused and clear, then it can really be understood.

[00:18:01] And storytelling is a great format for that too. Yeah. Does that answer? 

[00:18:07] Esther Kute: Yes, it does. Thank you so much. And actually, it's so funny, as you were speaking, actually have an product. The outcome is an exhibition. There's videos that were made. So at the end of the day, there might not be physical in the sense of industrial or product-designed item, but there is, is an outcome that can, that is tangible.

[00:18:29] So, as you were speaking, it actually became very clear to me. So, thank you. Fantastic. 

[00:18:33] Adrian: Great. Great. Awesome. Esther, I'd love to know more about... is this a project then that you are looking potentially to apply with? And maybe you can let us know more about that project you just told us about.

[00:18:47] Esther Kute: Oh, okay. Thank you. Well, I've, I've basically been interested in sustainability for a long time, since I was doing my undergraduate, actually. Because my undergraduate project was a, basically a fashion collection made out of waste recycled and reused waste textiles. So, for example, I would take all leather jackets or old sweaters and then undo the sweaters, knit or crochet them into scarves, for example.

[00:19:13] This led to me being part of a team that was selected through an organization called Exploring Visual Cultures. So, this is funded by the German fund. The German International Fund, I think GEZ, G E Z.

[00:19:24] And basically, they're interested in educators from all over the world working together doing real life projects together, collaborating. And in the process, we are also developing material for teaching our students. So, I was working with artists. For this particular residency I was working with artists from South Africa.

[00:19:44] We had South Africa, Ghana, Cameroon anywhere else, Brazil, and Germany. And what happened is this, were actually artists, visual artists, so sculptors and curators and things like that. So, I was the only designer there. And we came together for two weeks in in Germany in a city called Canet.

[00:20:05] It's a rural city and we were being hosted in a project of, project of is another organization that, that is very interested in sustainability. And their campus in Canet is self-sustaining. So, they have solar power. They have greenhouses and this kind of things, planting and eating from the garden, organic, you know, this kind of very back to the, what we call back to the... not really indigenous in a way but, you know, like back to the soil, you know, so we were there. We came up with a collection of artworks that we were going to exhibit in Berlin, and we exhibited at wow. Why is the name okay? The name is leaving my tongue just now, but one of the biggest galleries in Berlin. And our, our theory or what was guiding us as our theory was trans-media storytelling and water bodies. So, as I was saying, a lot of waste in the, in the world right now is affecting water. At the end of the day, if you're not, if you're not able to use water as human beings, we'll die. We cannot grow crops. We cannot drink water.

[00:21:11] If we are not able to get fresh water, it's going to become a huge problem and already it's becoming a big problem. So, these are part of the discussions we are having where, for example, privatization of water. In fact, the South Americans, this is a huge issue for them.

[00:21:25] Global companies like Coca-Cola, like Nestle, all these guys are privatizing water. And if you look in Kenya, there have been discussions about organizations privatizing water in Kenya. So, it's a very dangerous precedent that's being set. And a lot of these organizations also lead, especially manufacturing, mass manufacturing.

[00:21:45] I come from a background of manufacturing, so I understand the damage we do the environment and that's why sustainability is becoming very important to me because I sit at the table. So, I'm able to guide those who are doing mass manufacturing to produce better for the environment, for humans, for the future in general.

[00:22:03] Yeah. So, water is a huge problem we are facing currently and basically reduced access to water, clean water. I could share with you maybe Adrian later a link, because the exhibition we did in Berlin is going to also become an online exhibition.

[00:22:20] So, it's something that's being worked on and finalized. Hopefully, we also actually plan to publish a book at the end of it all sometime next year. So, what you could do is you could experience exhibition. You'll get to experience what we did, but

virtually. So, it's something that's ongoing. It looks amazing, but it's in progress. So, I think once that's done, I could share with you, Adrian. There's also a summer university that included even more people working in sustainability.

[00:22:44] Now in South America, apart from Brazil, we had Ecuador, Mexico, all these guys. It was so funny because one of the ladies were with from Mexico, she's so heavily invested in the organization actually is heavily invested in sustainability that they were

leaving once we were finished.

[00:23:02] She was going to buy a forest with her organization because they needed to, how do you call it, to protect it. So, they're buying the forest to fence it off and replant and regrow trees. And then return it to the, to the community because it had been over-utilized and trees cut and that kind of thing.

[00:23:25] So, there's a lot of people who are really interested in sustainability in ways that is very different, large scale. It opened my eyes to that kind of angle because I've

always looked at it from, of course, the manufacturing side of it, preventing. You know, you know, though you prevent before anything goes bad because that's how manufacturing works.

[00:23:44] But then there are people who are working from the endpoint where things have already been damaged and they're trying to restore the environment. Yeah. So, we had workshops, like for example for me, I took part in the next two weeks. I was in Germany for about two months. So, towards the end of the two months, I took part in the workshop that was videography and filmmaking.

[00:24:06] And we were being taught how to tell stories through video and films about sustainability. So, I think the outcomes was a one-minute video about boycotting fashion and then another one-minute video about people who came, corporations that came and destroyed a whole forest, and then now they're leaving and they're having an existential crisis.

[00:24:30] Should I leave? Should I stay? You know, so it's, it's forcing you to ask yourself that question, like, what are we doing? Is this necessary? Is it important? You know, but we had, everyone else had other outcomes, you know? So, at the end of it all, the point was to bring more awareness to sustainability and as I said, at a grassroots level so that individually people understand that they can make a change, individually, as opposed to thinking this is a big thing that only big corporations and governments can solve. So, we bring it back down to individuals realizing if I don't buy clothes from SHEIN. SHEIN is one of the big problematic organizations. It's a huge discussion because they produce new collections every week and there's of such poor quality that their, their t-shirts, some of t-shirts produced by SHEIN can even be torn, you can tear it like a piece of paper.

[00:25:26] So, it's so scary for us that this is becoming a common thing to happen, you know, so if, if I'm discussing it with my friends, I know if I tell them, if you try to avoid

buying things from an organization like SHEIN, you force them to either change their practices or go out of business so that organizations that enforce sustainability practices can stay in business and in such a way we make the environment better.

[00:25:51] Yeah. I hope that makes sense. Okay. Thanks, Adrian. 

[00:25:54] Adrian: Thank you, Esther. Thank you. What you're discussing about, you know, a collection coming out every week that's frankly ridiculous. Some of these brands are actually really struggling because they've failed to kind of create an identity, either as a community or also through their clothing because they're just creating generic rubbish a lot of the time. And it's forgettable.

[00:26:20] Perhaps they're actually going to just go to other markets where consumers want that stuff because, you know, it's, it's taking time and usually it's the most privileged people who have the privileged to worry about the environment and those, like you mentioned, those people on the ground don't often have the opportunity to be able to make that change.

[00:26:41] I wonder if you've seen any examples? Of those change-making, you know, whether storytelling or behavioral, behavioral science, and so on. 

[00:26:52] Esther Kute: Yes, yes. Like, yes. Like the team we had from Brazil, they had been, in a residency in Munich for three months before we teamed up with them for the next two months.

[00:27:04] Why we actually were like, we want for them to be part of our collective was because the exhibition they're working on at the residency in Munich was based on a manmade catastrophe that happened in their hometown in Brazil. I forget the name,

unfortunately, where they stay, but it's a mining town.

[00:27:21] And what happened is the company that owns the mine had ignored warnings from the residents that something was going wrong. So, it was like they had created some sort of a dam to store water. The water was sort of helping them with some sort of mining and things. And in the process, the dam broke and flooded almost the whole area that these guys were staying. People died. And the organization itself took too long to respond. And when investigations were done, it was found that this

organization was actually owned by a company in Germany.

[00:27:55] So in fact, that's why they were having this exhibition in Munich, in Germany, because you know, it's very easy for someone, as you're saying, some of us, like even for me, I have to admit there's some problems that I cannot say I experience because I'm a bit more removed or privileged from it. So, Germans are very removed from the

problems rural Brazilians are facing because a lot of mining is going on there.

[00:28:17] Extraction of resources and all. And the resulting problems, environmental pollution, cancer because of lead and all these kinds of minerals. These artists were like, we have to take this story to Germany for Germans to see the damage that their

companies are doing. In Europe, it's very nice. It's very clean.

[00:28:37] There's almost no waste. But then they come to this global south and global south being countries in Africa, countries in South America, you know, in Asia. And they create so much damage. And of course, it's not just those organizations, even

organizations from our own continents are causing issues.

[00:28:55] But their discussion was, we want to show the damage that was done in a way that will be shocking. So, for example, one of the artists, she's a textile artist, so he had this whole cloth. Very long, I think 12 meters white cloth. And she was teaching the

names of those who died in that catastrophe that happened in their area.

[00:29:17] So, she was teaching it live during the whole exhibition that was going on. And what would happen is as she's teaching the members were going through the exhibition would come and sit and read to her stories about the people who died. So for example, John was this guy, he did this, he had two children and you know, da, da, da.

[00:29:36] People realize that those who died are human beings and they were impacted by this environmental damage, and it's important for us to take this seriously, you know? So, they had quite a bit, those who did paintings, and the paintings were reflective of the land and how the land used to look before and then now it looks damaged, you know?

[00:29:55] And the other thing they did that I liked was there's a Brazilian culture where women of a certain area decided to collect the it's, I think it's clay from the mines. And they make dolls and then they sell these dolls as a community. The women, the community. They sell these dolls and to make money. And why they do this is because the men used to work in the mines. The men had left them to go work in the mines, so they were left as women and children to take care of them.

[00:30:30] When people go to war and men will always be the first to go to war. So, it's always the women, the children, and the old who are left. So, these women had to find a way to fend for themselves, and they, they thought, why don't we use the mines that have been damaged and left here?

[00:30:45] Collect the soil. They create dolls. They sell the dolls to make money. But the most important thing of this story is they don't collect and make the dolls only around, no, they only do it for, I think, three months outta the rest of the year. They will sell for three months, and then after that, they don't allow anyone to go collect any more soil because they're trying to revamp the land around themselves to make it better again, because the companies came mined, mined. Once they could not mine anymore, they left and went to another area and the men left and went to work with them. And now the society is left with the damage. So, it's these women who are now trying to nurture the land back to health and in the process trying to make money while doing this, but using sustainable methods at the same time or using sustainable practices, but at the

same time using indigenous practices because these are dolls that are very indigenous to the Brazilian culture in the area that these women are in.

[00:31:45] Adrian: Wow. Love it. So much knowledge. I'm gonna make sure I download this recording. And we can, we can see if we can trim some bits out of it. I'd love to know what that project is. There's so many corporations have left behind pieces of land that used to be beautiful nature, and then just dug in and left big holes in the ground and places are collapsing literally into the earth as well. So, Esther, I'd love to know how

those dolls fit in with it as well. 

[00:32:13] Esther Kute: It's a traditional indigenous method of preserving culture because these dolls were referencing fertility women, you know, like though in Africa we had sculptures that women would use for fertility.

[00:32:24] So for them in Brazil, this would be the dolls that are made for fertility. It's almost like a god of fertility. So, you could pray to this god. However, they became very popular. For example, when tourists are traveling or, you know, so they come and they buy this as a souvenir, you know, so in the process, this is how they realized, oh, so we could do this as a business, but at the same time, we should not make them all year round.

[00:32:47] We should just make them for maybe three months. After that if they go out of stock, we have to wait until next year to do the process of production again. That way they allow the land to heal itself slowly but surely.

[00:33:01] Adrian: Great, great. Thanks. We've kind of gone in a nice loop as well because indigenous practices are really important.

[00:33:09] Have you seen indigenous practices such as that one in Kenya, like some of the ones we talked about earlier whether it's new materials or whether it's a piece of culture that's being presented in a specific way?

[00:33:23] Esther Kute: Oh, there are many, of course. One of the things that's very clear, even when we were all together with all these other guys because we call ourselves from the global south. It's a political term to use but, you know, our cultures were very, very nature conscious.

[00:33:38] It's just something that I think capitalism has sort of pushed us away from those kinds of cultures. But if you look at our cultures, even the ones I, for example, used to experience when I was younger, you could tell that these were things that were

really good for the environment, for example, there's nothing like large-scale farming.

[00:33:58] Most of the time people would farm just to feed the family, you know, and maybe the extended family and they would farm for certain seasons. Other seasons they would allow the land to rest and rejuvenate. You see, this is something that seems very simple, but it's an indigenous practice that I think is done across all countries in Africa and most other countries in South America.

[00:34:21] Cause when we were discussing, they were saying the same things. They're saying, oh yeah, we also do this. Also, things like... is it cross? Cross? When you plant different types of plants, like you plant maize, maize is usually very damaging to the soil.

[00:34:34] Because it takes a lot of nitrogen. When nitrogen is not in the ground, the soil struggles to create nutrients. So, what people would do indigenously, they would plant other plants like legumes, legumes like beans, because the roots of legumes absorb nitrogen back into the soil.

[00:34:52] So, you see maize is using nitrogen into itself while the beans is bringing back nitrogen into the ground. So, this would sound very sciencey now, but back then it was just indigenous practice. Those who were farmers, they would know, if we plant this plant together with this plant, the soil will not be damaged.

[00:35:11] Then if we give time for the soil to rest, and then they would put like for example, for us, when you're growing up, my parents are both agriculturalist. Instead of throwing away the things you used like maze, for example, if you harvest maize and all

the plants, you, you could cut them into pieces and dig them into the soil.

[00:35:28] They go back into the soil and then you let the soil rest for a while. Some of the things we'd even sort of burn. It was a slow kind of burn that you get ash and the ash would be used again. So, it's fertilizer, but it's not this kind of harmful modernized

fertilizer, you know? For example, like our building practices, most of our buildings, especially for African cultures, African countries, we were using clay to build.

[00:35:53] And it's so interesting, I've been looking at African architecture lately, and it's funny that these buildings exist up to today, even though they were using clay or

stones, for example, from nature. We were discussing how if... cause part of the exhibition we did in Berlin was clay heads. This clay, we sourced it from the lakes in Canet, the area in Germany where we were staying. And we were asking ourselves, as we are collecting this clay, we are damaging the ecosystem of the lake.

[00:36:22] So, how then if we are telling stories about not damaging the environment, that we are collecting clay and in the process, we are sort of damaging the environment. How do we pay back nature? 

[00:36:35] Initially we were going to like fire the clay head so that they can last for longer. But when we were discussing, you know, now we were also being forced to go back into ourselves and realize as much as we are championing sustainability, we are

doing certain things that are damaging to the environment. So, we decided then we are not going to fire the heads because firing one fire, smoke into the environment.

[00:37:00] Terrible. Two, once you fire clay, it becomes something that cannot degenerate back into the ground. So, we were like, we want to leave the clay and fire. We shall just dry it out in the sun. That way once we are done with the exhibition, the clay can go back to the lake and it can be reintegrated into the ecology of the

ecosystem of the lake.

[00:37:21] You know? 

[00:37:22] There's a lot, I mean, if I say them, all of them, we'll be here forever. Our cultures have so much indigenous practices that were meant to be helpful for the environment. They were meant to reduce the grid we have in taking so much from the environment and giving back so little, you know? 

[00:37:40] Adrian: Wow. Yeah. That's just given me an idea actually, Esther. Because we've been, you know, the theme for next year's festival is it's what we make it and we wanna have as many hands-on material things as well for people to make with, and I was just thinking that Clay, because maybe we can get clay from Kazuri, for example.

[00:38:02] Clay would be a really nice material for people to play with. And then it can be like you said, it can be recycled. I guess the problem with baked clay is that it's done. Once it's in the shape of something. Yeah. It's fixed. 

[00:38:15] Esther Kute: The idea would be we use the clay, then once it's done, we take it back to Kazuri.

[00:38:20] Adrian: Yeah, exactly. And we give people a challenge to build something with it. Something entertaining like a bridge. Brilliant.

[00:38:27] Example of circular design of beautiful products as well, that use bone and other materials as well. They use bone and they polish it and, and they shape it into these ornate and intricate pieces of jewelry. They're really great. So, they've just been

featured as well at Kibera Fashion Week.

[00:38:49] So, I encourage you guys to go check out Victoria's Crafts because they're doing circular design already. So really perfect entry for this challenge as well. And if you need gifts that are affordable and well-made, then go find them. We actually showed the whole process as well in a video, so you can search for artisans of Kibera

on YouTube or on the Nairobi Design Week website, but we had a whole series with artisans in Kibera. Another example at the time was of using plastic bags to turn them into bags at the time. Of course, we, fortunately, don't have that problem. It's quite strange to go outside of Kenya and see plastic bags everywhere where we're not used to them anymore.

[00:39:35] So, let's hope plastic bottles go in that same direction sooner rather than later. Esther, yep, go for it. 

[00:39:42] Esther Kute: Oh no, I was just going to laugh and say yes. Plastic bags. I think Kenya, we are surprisingly ahead in the world that we usually give credit to ourselves. For example, I was shocked in Germany, they still use paper bags.

[00:39:54] And as we were transiting through other countries, guys were using paper bags, literal polythene bags. Even things like smoking, you know, the people smoke on the streets. You are walking and you're wondering, why am I choking? Berlin for example, why am I feeling like I'm dying? And then you realize, ah, it's because everyone is smoking as they're walking, and yet in Kenya, you have to go to a smoking zone. And these are small things people don't realize. And yet before someone took

action, they were actually very bothersome to us, you know, and they were damaging to us.

[00:40:25] But now that we've handled it. And I remember when we were saying plastic bags can't be used. Everyone was saying, how will we manage? Oh my God, this is not how we should do it. I was at Bata at that time. We were calling all our suppliers, figuring out how we can stop using polythene bags. And we realized a lot of our products were packaged in polythene bags.

[00:40:47] Not just the shoes. Even the raw materials used to produce the shoes are packed in polythene bags. Even waste would be put in polythene. So, it became very conscious of us to start to realize, oh wow, so we can do this instead of this, you know? So, those are things that we also need to be proud of ourselves as Kenyans.

[00:41:06] So, oh wow. It'll be cool for this 'make it circular' challenge or what design can do... it'll be good to maybe have a project where we're documenting the successes of, you know Kenyan projects. That would also be a really cool way to do it from the government level, maybe.

[00:41:22] Adrian: Yeah, for sure, for sure. Actually, you are right. It's really great that Kenya is ahead. I actually saw some Guardian article, I think about the Nairobi smoking booth because it's such a thing, you know that that that happens and it's great and actually, it helps also decrease the litter. I noticed in Cape Town they have signs everywhere not to drop cigarette butts because of course they're close to the ocean as well, and they provide bins everywhere for smokers.

[00:41:54] Going back to what you said on polythene bags and also the term paper bags that is used in Kenya, I'd be very curious to find out when and how paper bags, you know, my guess would be that people used to use paper bags. And then at some stage, plastic bags were introduced and they just kept being called paper bags.

[00:42:17] It's generational. Right. And it's nobody's fault but it's interesting because I haven't seen them called paper bags in other places, even though they're made of plastic. So also, the non-woven bags, the green and blue ones that we have that kind of feel like fabric a lot of the time, those are also made of plastic.

[00:42:39] They're called non-woven materials. Which means that they're usually compressed into layers and usually it's a plastic and it may be fibers of plastic that are thrown into a mold and then pressed to create this flat sheet. And then those flat sheets would be used to create the plastic bags that we have.

[00:43:01] So, they're also not really good for the environment. They seem maybe tougher but also when we look at that material and not woven, which takes us kind of back to the sanitary pads that we've pinned at the top that are made out of pineapple leaves and corn husks. So, those nonwoven materials, sanitary pads, are also made of

nonwoven materials, so nappies, and many other things.

[00:43:28] The other being woven materials, which is like your fabrics that you're wearing generally as your clothing that have fibers that have been woven, that's self-explanatory. And again, pineapple leaves and corn husks. I'm sure I've seen stuff being made out of either cane fiber or of course hemp.

[00:43:50] But also coconuts maybe. I think I've seen something made out of mango. So, there's a lot of waste materials that can be reused and when compressed, they can make a really good material. So, perhaps these sanitary pads, something similar could be used, maybe, you know, sanitary pads they're optimized material for absorption,

but for a bag, you could optimize it for strength.

[00:44:15] And I'm sure there are local materials that we have that could be used to even replace those non-woven bags. What do you think? 

[00:44:23] Esther Kute: Yes, for sure. I think I was also surprised because in the process of us doing research for changing packaging for Bata, I was surprised to find out that non-woven bags are still plastic bags.

[00:44:33] I dunno if for some reason we thought it was some sort of cotton blend, you know so why it's allowed, I think the grammage, so it's a bit heavier, and two, because of that it allows it to be reused more and in essence, it reduces single use.

[00:44:50] The idea was to reduce single-use packaging, you know? So, in terms of sanitary pads or maybe alternative materials to be used, I think people are just choosing anything and everything, honestly. I was looking at design boom and they were, they had written an article about a team that had were 3D printing using orange peels.

[00:45:07] They were making furniture out of orange peels. To be honest, we are living in a dream world right now. People are talking about going to Mars. People are talking about self-driving cars. People are talking about flying cars. You can do anything. The technology is there.

[00:45:22] We are now discussing AI that can do anything. I feel like for us as designers, we are living in a time where you can experiment with just literally anything and figure it out. One of the guys who was also with us in Germany was working on a project where they're growing algae and they're trying to use that algae as fabric figuring out how to manufacture it to become fabric that can be used of course instead of the damaging thing that cotton, because cotton is good, yes, but cotton growing and producing cotton has a lot of waste and harmful things like pesticides and lead and other heavy metals for water and it chooses a lot of water. Algae when you're growing it, of course, it's good for the water ecosystem as you're growing it.

[00:46:06] And then as you are using it for fabric, they're planning to use it in such a way that it becomes sort of like a regenerative material, for example. And when it goes back as waste, it's sort of like manure to the land as opposed to just waste. So, as in

people are really out here experimenting.

[00:46:24] I think for my Ph.D. project, since I'm planning to use technology to make shoes for persons with disabilities. Technology has become one of those things I am consistently reading on and it's gotten to a point where I have information overload because there's so much in technology being done in design right now.

[00:46:40] I would just say don't limit yourself because at the end of the day, I think the most important thing especially coming from a manufacturing point of view would be one, is supply. If you're going to use algae, you want to produce clothes that can be worn by 8 billion people.

[00:46:57] And one of the other things we were discussing was, okay, we are using these lithium batteries. Yes. What is the effect they'll have on us or the environment in future? Because these batteries will have to be disposed at some point. We'll be in contact with these batteries in one way or another.

[00:47:12] Are they creating emissions? Will they lead to us being affected in terms of cancer or issues like this? You know? Sustainability is such a complex issue. I think by the time we were leaving the summer university, we felt like we had more work to do

than actually when we went there and we had less information because we were

realizing that sometimes as you're solving one problem, you are creating another problem.

[00:47:36] So, it's a balancing act. Some of these things might have to be experimental and then you realize, woo, this is not good. We have to change it. You know, so it might look good for the environment, but in the long run it actually is not good for the

environment. So, it's a tricky thing. 

[00:47:53] Adrian: Yeah. Love it. Absolutely.

[00:47:56] And what you mentioned as well about materials that allow us to grow, and that's a key change that we are about to make in industry because for the last 150 years we've been manufacturing through additive or destructive processes. Welding and injection molding and so on, and just adding to this playbook of manufacturing processes where we are using oil effectively, right?

[00:48:23] Now we are moving to growing. In London, I met a designer who's growing colors through bacteria onto fabrics. I believe it was silk. It was really, really beautiful. And it has this effect almost of chromatography. It's an effect that you can't really

achieve with print or any other method.

[00:48:44] It may look a bit like tie-dye, but it's, it's highly unique and many, many different variations and all these different things in development that are, you know, fungus that's being grown into building materials or into furniture and algae is another one you mentioned that many people have high hopes for.

[00:49:04] You're right, we're in a dream world where it's a really exciting time because we are creating a lot of new things. We're kind of on the verge of something new. And I'm an industrial designer, so I love making stuff. I have this book called Making It. It's one of my favorite books because it's effectively a long list of manufacturing processes and you can just look in there and understand how basically anything around you is made.

[00:49:31] And we need those books now for recycling processes and for growing processes, right? So, I'm very excited for that. 

[00:49:40] Esther Kute: Yes, for sure. I think I have the book. I think one of the other things you said that is very important that I actually also tell my students is if you do not know how to make it, then you'll tend not to be able to make it, because you'll not realize the opportunity there.

[00:49:54] So, as designers, it's good for us to understand manufacturing processes because it allows you to experiment even more with what is available to create even new manufacturing or production processes. So yeah, that's true.

[00:50:06] Adrian: Absolutely. And just to come back to what brought us here together as well, the make it circular challenge, cuz this has been a really amazing conversation and digging up all of these examples and inspiration and I'll definitely try to download this conversation.

[00:50:23] And so, the What Design Can Do challenge, the deadline is on the 11th of January, so there's over a month left. If you are interested in applying and please share it out as well. 

[00:50:35] It's on our Twitter feed and you've got all the information there, the whole design brief around circular design. And there's a lot we've touched on including storytelling. So, it doesn't have to be kind of the hard design or material development that we've perhaps talked about. It could be storytelling and impact. Could be through education, could be a variety of other methods you'll see as well bringing together design with other skill sets.

[00:51:06] Perhaps you know a chemist who's had this thing that they've been developing. Maybe it's something quite useful, but they don't know quite how to fit it to the problem that you see as a designer, as a design thinker. Maybe you've already got an idea in mind as well. That's really great. And you can develop that, try to look at the

questions specifically in the application and go through and upload your project.

[00:51:36] So, really encouraging everyone to apply and you guys have an amazing evening and we'll do this soon, again we'll pick another topic and we'll have another conversation, Esther. 

[00:51:48] Esther Kute: Okay. Thank you, Adrian. Bye, everyone. Have to go. Bye. 

[00:51:51] Adrian: Good timing. Yeah, thank you, everyone.

[00:51:54] Have a great night and we'll catch you soon. Keep an eye out for more spaces. 

[00:51:58] Host (Adrian): If you have any ideas for episodes we should do, people we should host on the show, please let us know. We're really, really interested in hearing your thoughts and if you've made it this far, a review would mean so much to us as well on whichever platform you are listening to us on. Or even a recommendation to one of your friends or through a tweet, we hope to get these stories out there to more people.

[00:52:24] I'm Adrian Jankowiak. This episode was edited by David King'ori with Music by Ngalah and Mercy Barno. Thank you for tuning in to Afrika Design.

Episode Credits

Produced by Nairobi Design Week

Hosts: Naitiemu and Adrian Jankowiak

Editor: David King'ori

Shorts & Artwork: Felix Owaga

Music: Ngalah Oreyo (@ngalah_oreyo) and Mercy Barno (@merc.b_)

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