PKG Fellowships: Ben Hoyle (G), Part II

Click here to read Part I of Ben’s PKG Fellowships experience.

The most significant progress since my last post has been through correspondences with others working in the same sector as Kivuli. I’ve had a number of calls and email exchanges with companies working to build more effective businesses alongside artisans from the informal sector in Nairobi. It’s been incredibly insightful to discuss the accomplishments and pitfalls of others as we model our own path forward. 

One group, for instance, has a maker space, which they’ve used to train informal artisans and set up a production process for greenhouses. In talking about their approach, we learned about the benefits of having parallel business models: on the one hand, we could facilitate contracts, and on the other we could host one-off design sessions with architects. 

Another group, called Rusty Fundi, has found a niche where they work with artisans to design and build elegant wood-burning stoves for family homes. One of their innovations has been their workflow, which allows artisans build goods based on digital designs. This has allowed them to bring in some young architects who work as product designers for the company using 3D modeling software. Their digital designs are then fabricated by artisans and sold. 

Finally, we’ve been in touch with Don Bosco, a group that trains youth living in poverty with construction and fabrication skills. They already work at a relatively large scale, and we hope to find a way to accommodate the graduates of their program into our production team. They have deep knowledge about the most effective skills to support young artisans going into the sector, and they’ll be a strong partner in figuring out how best to collaborate with artisans in our own projects. 

A takeaway from all of this is the significance of connecting with people already working on the same problem as us. For all of the research and theorizing we’ve done, we can learn a lot more, quickly, by connecting with people on the ground. It’s been inspiring to learn about some of their backgrounds, and it helps me to envision how Kivuli might grow in the coming months. 

These conversations have prompted us to revise some aspects of our approach, which has led to some exciting new ideas. The most compelling for me is the concept that we might be able to digitally fabricate certain simple components (e.g. precise squares of metal with holes in just the right place), which artisans could attach to their otherwise hand-made products. Engineering product designs along these lines could significantly improve the quality of goods, while allowing artisans to maintain their current approach to working. 

I have also been reflecting on my large-scale ambition, which is to design buildings, construction products and manufacturing processes in such a way that allows local labor to benefit from growth in the built environment. We’ve started to realize that we might best work towards this goal by focusing in on the design of specific products, rather than trying to address many aspects of the problem. As a result, we’ve been designing a specific product — a window — that artisans can build. We would manufacture the components for the window as a kit of parts using higher-order machinery, incorporating grooves and markings that would make it clear how the parts need to be welded together. Artisans would then have less room for error in assembling the window. This would mean that they would need less training from us, as well as less oversight, which could enable us to bring in a wider range of workers and expand the impact of our company. The final product would also be much higher quality than what’s currently available, and might even come together more quickly.  

The problem remains that benefits to the sector would be dependent on our manufactured parts. But we’ve been thinking of ways to overcome this. We could develop a range of products, from those that are most highly constrained by their parts (i.e. have a very clear and easy way of fitting together), to those that are looser and require more craftsmanship. Artisans working with us could work their way towards the more complicated products as they take on projects from us over an extended period, eventually gaining skills that would be useful even without a Kivuli kit of parts. 

Another change has been in how we approach architects. I had assumed that they’d be willing to pay more for customizable goods. But in speaking with others in the sector, I’ve learned that companies that focus on customized goods need to do a lot of design work that goes uncompensated, since clients often fail to recognize the time required for good design and won’t pay for it. Moreover, the design work in one project doesn’t carry over to the next, so there is little opportunity to recoup lost time. My conclusion has been that a focus on customization is inefficient, and would require constant input and oversight from myself or another designer, thereby hindering the scalability of operations and once again limiting the number of artisans who benefit at the end of the day. This has been another reason to focus on the design of a single product for the time being, so that the effort we put into design can pay off for many projects and many artisans. 

Interested in doing a PKG Fellowship? Learn more about the program and how to apply by clicking here.

Tags: Fellowships Summer 2021, IDEAS, IDEAS 2021, PKG Fellowships

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