Written by DTGUSA
What have we realized 16 months after our first assessment article about our efforts in Kakuma Refugee Camp? Don’t assume the outcome—using design thinking tools and processes does not always lead to the results anticipated by facilitators and clients.
“A hungry belly has no ears” caught our attention recently when we read a short article by Patrick Kenzo Mateene, one of the primary organizers in a 2020 design thinking foundations course with Kakuma Vocational Training Center (KVC) in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya.
We first wrote about KVC in June 2021 as a case study in virtual co-creation and training in a refugee camp setting, but this project has been so near and dear to our hearts that we’d like to share additional thoughts, 16 months later.
Kenya has over 500,000 refugees in encampments. Kakuma Refugee Camp is one of the world’s largest, with over 200,000 people living in the camp, and has been operational since the early 1990s. KVC was established within the camp in 2018.
One of the founders, Matabishi (“Mata”) Narukako John, contacted DTG in 2019. We were moved by the project’s potential for positive impact, and we offered a live-online design thinking program, free of charge, to equip community members with creative problem-solving skills and techniques.
Setting the Stage for Innovation
DTG facilitated and presented a six-part workshop with 10 participants, later reaching 26 participants. The training included understanding the stages of human-centered design, focusing on the end user, framing and reframing the challenge, using a variety of brainstorming activities, prototyping, giving and receiving feedback, and sharing tips on group facilitation and involving community and organizational members.
The workshop and follow-up work included in-community activities to collect data, analyze the data, develop alternatives to assist the community, reframe hypotheses, develop prototypes, solicit community feedback on prototypes, and, finally, make presentations to the community and DTG to showcase their findings and recommendations on how to use design thinking in the camp.
Progress Amid Setbacks
After the training, the KVC team got busy designing some projects that would help the Kakuma Camp improve. These included assessing community opinions and conducting fact-finding missions to identify ways to extend the utilization of the monthly commodity allocation and improve camp clean-up efforts.
All of this was interrupted by the arrival of unusually heavy seasonal rains. Then the unthinkable happened—a fire completely destroyed the KVC training facility, leaving team members with no place to continue their vocational education work. If that wasn’t enough, this was followed by several health and life challenges among the staff and a record drought across the region.
During all of the hardships, KVC borrowed space at a local worship center and continued to provide a variety of training programs such as coding and online gaming, Social Emotional Learning (SEL), hair styling, graphic design, and MetaSpace innovation.
Patrick’s Project: An Unexpected Solution
At one point, Patrick asked if DTG could connect him with someone who could train them in soap-making. While not an area of DTG expertise, our Nigeria-born colleague, Augusta Olaore, was able to identify a source in Nigeria—Aderonke Olutoyin Korede, owner of Ornament Multiventures—and the training was provided via Zoom in 2021.
It’s a great story, and the initiative is having a notable impact in Kakuma Refugee Camp. Read all about it in our companion post featuring Patrick’s article. In it, Patrick reports that KVC leadership recognized that “A hungry belly has no ears,” illustrating that parents were not able to attend KVC classes, participate in design thinking processes, nor teach their children if they and their children remained hungry and unable to eat.
Basic Needs Come First
Many of us in the design thinking field talk about and work on dire problems, but few of us actually struggle to deal with meeting basic needs of existence. The impact of hunger on learning, teaching others (e.g., teaching one’s children life skills), and being a positive contributor to a community cannot be underestimated!
The KVC team is faced with this challenge of meeting the basics of life on a daily basis. Although we know people living in refugee camps face these challenges daily, meeting these needs was not something we anticipated being an outcome of our collaboration with KVC.
Soap-making is an unanticipated outcome of the design process that KVC and DTG used, albeit indirectly and out of necessity, as part of our collaboration with KVC. It came in response to meeting the basic needs of KVC clients. The parents and friends of KVC students and staff researched, designed, and responded to needs using all the tools they had, including design thinking.
What have we learned since publishing our first case study? We’d like to share five key takeaways for innovation consultants and change makers:
- Basic needs must be addressed. Work with the client and “meet them where they are.” Learn about their situation and work with them to move to a new level. Sometimes, as in this case, money to help make life a bit easier is a first priority.
- Clients sometimes have bigger dreams. Help keep the dreams alive, but work with them on the challenges of each day. It is not possible to learn coding or design thinking if your family does not have food at the end of the month. (Kakuma Camp receives food allocations each month, but many families experience shortages before they can get a new supply.) Work with clients and work with their world—their reality. Be careful not to make assumptions, especially when working cross culturally. This should be considered when working in different kinds of communities and companies; various parts of the whole will have different norms, practices, and histories.
- Accept everyone as an expert. Everyone is an expert within their own world. They know their history, their journey, and their connections better than anyone. Respect that knowledge and try to complement, support, and encourage them to keep their dreams alive. As a consultant, help them address their realities and take steps that will make life better, help them be more productive, and increase the likelihood of a better tomorrow.
- Progress or change can be slow and incremental. Change is not always progress—sometimes it can be regressive and result in a more negative situation. Do what you can, as quickly as the client will allow, to mitigate or avoid negative outcomes.
- Stay positive, and champion the vision of a better tomorrow. At times, clients can be very negative about the current situation and their vision of tomorrow. Help them deal with reality, and help them stay grounded. Part of our role as designers and change makers is to give them a vision of a brighter tomorrow and instill a belief that change is possible.