Before July 2011 a group of highly talented designers from Africa worked separately and isolated in their offices and workshops in different parts of Africa.
They were struggling with the same problems and faced constraints like lack of opportunities for artistic skill development and business development. And they had no one to share their frustrations with, be inspired by or learn from.
Zimbabwean ceramic artist Marjorie Wallace, who makes distinct and delicate ceramics design, was just about to close her Matupo Pottery in Harare due to cash-flow problems, hyperinflation and political instability. Then she got the invitation to become a member of Design Network Africa:
“Before I entered the DNA arena, I had been cut off because of our political and economic circumstances. I was going under, drowning. It’s as if someone threw me a lifeline,” says Marjorie Wallace. To her Design Network Africa has been a way out of an isolated existence in Zimbabwe. Now she is a member of the DNA-family and is selling her ceramics to different shops in European cities including the Terence Conran Shop, a London-based luxury retailer selling design home ware and furniture.
Collective efforts pay off locally
Marjorie Wallace is not the only one, who has experienced, that DNA was a game changer. Significant uptick in sales and new chances of hiring employees has been the reality for many of the designers.
More than 220 people have found full-time employment in the workshops of DNA-designers – while additional part-time and seasonal workers are hired, when the workload becomes too big for the permanent staff. Since the launch of DNA in 2011, almost all designers of the network have increased their number of employees.
DNA-member Babacar M’Bodj Niang, a Senegalese furniture designer, now has five employees at his workshop outside Dakar, while some of his former employees are starting up their own design brands. And Marjorie Wallace has through collaboration projects with other designers in the network been encouraged to engage craft designers from the local community at her pottery.
The positive sales and employment figures can be explained by the successful collective promotion of Design Network Africa at exhibitions and design fairs. Design Network Africa was for instance represented at the GUILD design fair in Cape Town in 2014 and the Graphic Africa exhibition at the Platform Gallery during London Design Week in 2013.
According to Trevyn McGovan, the Cape Town-based coordinator of the network, Design Network Africa has quickly turned into a quality brand for African design.
”The work by DNA designers is beautifully executed, the quality is high and the designs hold their own at an extremely sophisticated level – DNA designers are being exceptionally well received at the most important collectible design fairs around the world and are being bought by leading global collectors,” says Trevyn McGovan, the South Africa-based coordinator of Design Network Africa and a dedicated promoter of designers from Africa.
The DNA-family is an example to follow
The designers refer to the network as ‘the DNA-family’. The sense of belonging to a family, which the term DNA-family implies, is a strong testimony of their mutual understanding and commitment to cooperate, share knowledge and exhibit together.
An evaluation carried out for CKU by the consultancy firm Nordicity on the work with creative industries in Africa reveals that the network model is the key to the success of Design Network Africa. Through the unique mix of joint workshops, knowledge sharing, collaborative projects crisscrossing the continent and individual counselling for each design company, the network has been a win for both the collective and the individual.
One of the conclusions in the evaluation is that supporting networks could be CKU’s model for any future efforts to strengthen creative industries.
“The evaluation confirms what we assumed from the feedback and personal stories, we receive: The network model is the secret behind the success,” says Louise Friis Pedersen, CKU’s expert in cultural and creative industries.
“Design Network Africa is in many ways a unique donor initiative. With Danish support the designers as a collective have won both design awards and international attention, which helps to generate orders and new jobs. At the same time, the network has been rewarding for the individual designer because of a focus on specific market and product development,” explains Louise Friis Pedersen, who looks forward to continue the work with Design Network Africa in the next phase.
The designers are also looking forward to 2015, where new challenges wait. And as Marjorie Wallace puts it, they are not on their own anymore.
“As a group we have created more effective change than we could as individuals,” concludes Marjorie Wallace.