For the past seven years, I have been working as an architect at MASS Design Group. It’s a design firm that began in Rwanda. We have worked in several countries in Africa, focusing on this more equitable and sustainable model of architectural practice, and Malawi is one of those countries. It’s a country with beautiful, remote landscapes with high-peak mountains and fertile valleys. But it also has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world.
A pregnant woman in Malawi either gives birth at home, or she has to walk a really long journey to the nearest clinic. And one out of 36 of these mothers dies during childbirth. In Malawi, with our team at MASS Design Group, we designed the Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village. This is a place women come to six weeks before their due dates. Here they receive prenatal care and train in nutrition and family planning.
At the same time, they form a community with other expectant mothers and their families. The design of the Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village borrows from the vernacular typologies of Malawi villages and is built using really simple materials and techniques. The earth blocks that we used were made from the same soil of this site. This reduces the carbon footprint of this building, but first and foremost, it provides a safe and dignified space for these expectant mothers. These examples show that architecture and design have the power and the agency to address complex problems.
But more to point, that we can develop a model of effective solutions for our communities. But these three examples are not enough. 300 more examples will not be enough. We need a whole community of African architects and designers to lead with thousands more examples.
In May of this year, we convened a symposium on African architecture, in Kigali, and we invited many of the leading African designers and architectural educators working across the continent. We all had one thing in common. Every single one of us went to school abroad and outside of Africa. This has to change. If we are to develop solutions unique to us, rather than attempting to turn Kigali into Beijing, or Lagos into Shenzhen, we need a community that will build the design confidence of the next generation of African architects and designers.
In September last year, we launched the African Design Centre to start building this community. We admitted 11 fellows from across the continent. It’s a 20-month-long, design-build fellowship program. Here, they are learning to tackle big challenges such as urbanism and climate change, as Kunlé and his team have. They’re working with communities to develop innovative building solutions and processes, as Kéré and his team have. They’re learning to understand the health impact of better buildings as we at MASS Design Group have been researching for the past several years.
The crowning moment of the fellowship is a real project that they designed and built. This is Ruhehe Primary School, the project they designed. They immersed themselves in the community to understand the challenges but also uncover opportunities, like using a wall made of local volcanic stone to turn the entire campus into a space of play and active learning. They evaluated the environmental conditions and developed a roof system that maximizes daylight and improves acoustic performance. The construction at Ruhehe Primary School will begin this year.
And over the coming months, the African Design Centre fellows are going to work hand-in-hand with the Ruhehe community to build it. When we asked the fellows what they want to do after their African Design Centre fellowship, Tshepo from South Africa said he wants to introduce this new way of building into his country, so he plans to open a private practice in Johannesburg.
Zani wants to expand opportunities for women to become engineers. Before joining the African Design Centre, she helped start, in Nairobi, an organization to bridge the gender gaps for women in engineering fields, and she hopes to take this movement across Africa, eventually the whole world.
Moses, from South Sudan, the world’s newest country, wants to open the first polytechnic school that will teach people how to build using local materials from his country. Moses had to be determined to become an architect. The civil war in his country frequently interrupted his architectural education. At the time he was applying to join the African Design Centre, we could hear gunshots going off in the background of his interview call. But even in the middle of this civil war, Moses hangs on to this idea that architecture can be a way to bridge communities back together. You have to be inspired by this fellow’s belief that great architecture can make a difference on how the future of Africa is built.
The unprecedented growth of Africa cannot be ignored. Imagine Africa’s future cities, but not as vast slums, but the most resilient and the most socially inclusive places on earth. This is achievable. And we have the talent to make it a reality. But the journey to ready that talent for the task ahead, like my own journey, is far too long.
For the next generation of African creative leaders, we have to shorten and streamline that journey. But most importantly — and I cannot stress this enough — we have to build their design confidence and empower them to develop solutions that are truly African but globally inspiring.