Saturday, February 19, 2011

Informal Economies in Africa: Creating products, services and systems that reinforce convivial relationships among people

Just paraphrasing a conversation between John Thackera and Mugendi M’Rithaa that showed up on the Thackera's Doors of Perception (first published in the Design Observer). Below is a quick capture of some ideas and language around the under-pinnings of "alternative" economies, specifically in Africa.

As socially-based alternatives economies are becoming more and more pervasive, there may be some lessons to learn from a continent that "may be cash poor but communally rich", attributing its wealth to "the universal value of participative, cohesive and inter-connected communities," says M'Rithaa. He continues, "A sense of communal solidarity is still strongly embedded in our collective consciousness and social fabric. For many close-knit communities (especially in rural and peri-urban settings) consumerism has yet to take its hold on the popular psyche – people readily share what they have, and borrow what they don’t." What I take this to imply is that, collectively speaking, Africa is still a culture of smaller, closer knit relationships where it is understood, implicitly or explicitly, that people are reliant upon each other to make their worlds move smoothly. Even if the circles are growing every day, there hasn't yet been a tipping point that moves the culture from a culture of "WE" to a culture of "ME." Subsequently, ownership is less a goal than a component of a larger system of sharing or exchanging.

This, M'Ritha says, is what makes Africa worth noting. Built upon a culture of collective self-reliance, and mutual assistance,the informal economy (barter, trade, swap, share....) is what keeps Africa moving. M'Ritha says that the sense of solidarity is pervasive. "It's expressed in various types of elective creative communities; these typically deal with shared needs such as running communal crèches and car pooling. These groups are known as chamas in Kenya, and differ significantly from traditional forms of groupings where membership was based on common kinship." At the heart of these economies is trust.

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