Nairobi design week filled with youthful energy and imagination


Poster for Nairobian at Nairobi Design Week at Kazuri Bead Factory, on April 8, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

This year’s Nairobi Design Week offered a dazzling display of young Kenyans’ energy, versatility, passion, and imagination. It happened at Kazuri Bead Factory, which turned out to be the perfect venue for visitors to wander through over 30 diverse exhibits leisurely.

 One also saw a surprising array of small-scale businesses that illustrated both entrepreneurial smarts and creativity. Take for instance, Tiffany Ngigi’s ‘Knot Donuts’, which have sold like hot cakes ever since she put them on Instagram and Facebook.

With a single knotted donut going for sh200 and a box of five for Sh800, it wasn’t just the novelty of the knot that proved most attractive to foodies hungry at all hours of day and night. It wasn’t even the 24-hour delivery service that Tiffany, 19, promised.

“Tiffany cares about quality,” says Sylvia Ngigi. “Plus the toppings are terribly popular,” she adds as she shows BDLife the billboard: Oreo Vanilla, Oreo Crumble (with both white and milk Chocolate), and Vanilla original.

Tiffany is just one of scores of young people who came to display everything from jewelry made from recycled materials, first-class handicrafts made by ‘urban refugees’, and clothes, some of which were original Kenyan fashions, some mitumba brought as part of a cash-free Thrift Shop started by and the Acacia Collective of artists.

“The idea is for people to swap clothes rather than sell them,” says Kip Ketter from Acacia who explains one must come with a piece of their own donatable clothing so they can exchange it for any of the shirts, dresses, pants, jeans, coats, shorts, and sweaters they have on display.

“Plus, every day at 1 pm during the Design weekend, we’ll have conversations about the ideas behind our shop, namely a circular economy and the notions of ‘reduce [waste], reuse, repurpose’,” adds Hephzibah Kisia. 

The big challenge of this design week is that so much is happening at once, it’s not easy to choose where to stop and engage all these enthusiastic youth, most of whom are under 30.

But we are advised by the Design Week’s founder, Adrian Jankowiak, that our next stop should be the Play Centre since lots is happening inside there.

And sure enough, he’s correct. Most is related to AR, Augmented Reality. That’s the realm where you put on special goggles only to find yourself in an unfathomable world created by the clever AR specialist who shows you how to navigate into and through it with your fingers and thumbs.

The first AR project I visited had been designed by James Kamau. It was meant to give an overview of the entire Design Week’s activities, including all the artworks, fashion, digital games, and food delights. I decided it was better to see it all firsthand.

Then came Brian Njenga’s Heritage project which aims to create 3D replicas of all of Kenya’s 32,000 lost artifacts, using AI (artificial intelligence), and onsite photography. “My problem is our [pre-colonial] culture is scattered in museums all over the world, and usually it’s in storage, so access is an issue,” says Njenga.

But he’s already got 10 replicas drawn from German museums with assistance from the Shiff Collective and Goethe Institute.

But the most exciting exhibition I had time to see at Design Week was Naitiemu’s multi-media project, Enkang’Ang’.

Named after the all-Maasai women’s community in Laikipia county, their village has already gained global notoriety for the strength of these women’s struggle to successfully break away from the Maasai status quo and set up their own self-sustaining society.

Being a Maasai herself, Naitiemu had a special affinity for the project she named Enkang’Ang’ which means ‘Our Home’. “The idea of the project was to discover and document Maasai culture, but we also wanted to re-imagine it, especially in light of this community,” says Naitiemu who’s a mechanical engineer by training but a painter and performing artist by passion.

Having designed a concept paper, she managed to obtain a grant from the Soul of Nature Foundation. The grant enabled her to select a team of highly qualified Kenyan women to help her document the lives of the women living together in Twale Tenebo village.

At Design Week, Enkang’Ang’ occupied a larger corner of the Play Centre with beautiful still photographs by Sarah Kadesa, several short videos, including music videos and one of a performance by Naitiemu and her dance team responding joyfully to Enkang’Ang’.

I couldn’t visit every exhibit this year, but it was thrilling to see Kenyan youth leap-frogging into the future, bringing the rest of us along behind.