Design Thinking: Revolutionizing the Future of Africa

August 8, 2018
Dewey Bazirake

What is a reiterative cycle? Should this be a philosophy of continuous improvement in life?


This summer I took on a role that I never envisioned having before. I took up the responsibility of facilitating/teaching a Design Thinking course for Early Connection Africa (ECA) on behalf of iZone. ECA is a pre-college program that brings brilliant students from Sub-Saharan Africa to the University of Rochester for a four week bridging program before they embark on their university studies. I was fortunate enough to work with tremendous students from 15 Sub-Sahara African countries including: Tanzania, South Africa, Cote D’Ivoire, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somaliland, to mention but a few. I have truly witnessed the force of education as the tool to shape the future direction for the African continent.



The program lasted 4 weeks and I was specifically teaching a class entitled, “Create the Future Africa.” How I came up with the name is a story for another day.  


Having done a week long crash-course for ECA last year, I thought 2018 would be the same. However, the process of reiteration requires paying attention to feedback and tailoring your new solution to best fit the need of your target audience. As I was still thinking about how I’ll hold the one week program, the Mastercard Foundation, African Leadership Academy & University of Rochester found it fit to run the program for the entire course of 4 weeks. This was my first shock. Am I equipped enough to run a program for that long? As a person constantly looking for a new challenge, I took it under my belt. It took me a couple of weeks to put together a course plan with the help of Outreach Librarians at the University of Rochester. Confident that I had this syllabus, I was ready to meet the students.


The program started on 9th July, 2018. During the first week, I introduced the concept of Design Thinking, a reiterative process for problem solving and project management. This was done through the Wallet Design project adapted from the Stanford The Wallet Design project is an empathetic guide to understanding your neighbor/ target audience.



During this week, iZone partnered with Outreach Librarians who helped students to do research into a problem with online databases and taught them how to cite such sources.



A lot of what the librarians taught the students dealt with doing in depth research into social problems using online databases of the University of Rochester. At the end of the first week, we divided the ECA students into 8 groups according to the following categories: Education, Health Care, Technology, Agriculture, Youth Empowerment, Energy, Environmental Conservation and Human Rights.



In the 2nd week, students had a chance to pitch their problem statements to a team of judges from iZone and the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship. This activity enabled the teams to reflect on the feedback provided by the judges to improve on the clarity of their problem statement.


In iZone, one of the rules we follow is “fall in love with the problem and not solution.”  We promote this philosophy because one only provides a valuable service/product to a target audience when it truly solves their problem. Yet again, many solutions can be crafted but the problem will always be a constant.


At the end of the second week, we were delighted to have a workshop conducted by advisors at the Greene Career and Internship Center. The facilitators conducted a Design Thinking Workshop entitled, “Design Your Life.” This workshop sparked creativity, sharing and gave direction towards the careers each of the students wanted to take. They learnt how they’ll use resources in their respective universities to advance further in their career.


Still keeping track of what week we’re at? I want to say that week 3 was my best week for I truly got to see the value in Design Thinking. Students had a chance to interview and get feedback on their latest solutions. Twenty seven partners of the Mastercard Foundation and the African Leadership Academy were visiting the University of Rochester for a conference, and we used this opportunity to have them interact with the students and critique their solutions. Some students felt broken after these sessions because they had to pivot and change their solutions. The partners urged the students to think of a realistic and implementable Minimal Viable Products (MVP’s) that would best test their solution. Feedback is one of the most important aspects of the Design Thinking process because this is how you iterate and improve on a current idea/ product/ service.



Towards the 3rd week, we were humbled to be given a presentation workshop by the Director of iZone, Julia Maddox. She encouraged the students to use storytelling as the best and most compelling way of delivering a pitch. She also gave guidance on how to make a short and precise presentation that communicates emotion to the audience.




Finally at the week’s end, students got a chance to prototype their ideas into a physical form. The students surprised me with the prototypes they were making. Some used Raspberry pi’s to create a cheaper and affordable laptop prototype, awareness videos, paper illustrations of farming practices (terraces), solar panels,  amongst others. I was stunned at the student’s creativity to bring an idea to life.




Last but not least, we had the final day of presentations. The students were elegantly dressed to present the solution that would tackle the problems they were most passionate about. We were honored to have judges from Admissions, a retired Engineer from Xerox, the Director of iZone, an entrepreneurship professor and a recent undergraduate. With a rubric I created, this panel sat patiently to listen to each of the presentations. Each presentation lasted 7 minutes with 5 minutes for Q&A. At the end of the event, I told the students that each of them were winners despite the first 3 teams getting prizes.


The first place team proposed to solve the problem of low quality education in South Sudan by creating a program, Teaching the Teacher. They were followed by an energy group that proposed to create an e-cafe in Binga, Zimbabwe that utilizes renewable energy such as solar and wind to provide access to information and charging ports for people in this area. The third groups aimed at increasing awareness around Human Rights in Zimbabwe. All groups had their strengths and weaknesses but the most valuable outcome was the team cohesion that formed at the end of the course.



At the end of the program, I was confident that the students who took the iZone class, “CREATE THE FUTURE AFRICA” will move forward to create revolutionary changes in all sectors and communities across the African continent. With a team, solid idea and support system, I believe that the Design Thinking Methodology will be a key factor towards the strategic development and growth for African countries.


“Appreciation to The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at the African Leadership Academy, Barbara J Burger iZone at the River Campus libraries and Admissions at University of Rochester for making this program a possibility”