Designing Solutions in Ghana
Recent grad Patricia Dranoff 15 ID aims to develop tools that make a lasting difference in the lives of people in West Africa and beyond.
Recent Industrial Design graduate Patricia Dranoff learns how to make gari flour from Ghanaian women.
Brazilian native Patricia (Patchi) Dranoff 15 ID sees her connection with RISD as a “great twist of fate.” Always passionate about using design to foster social justice, she had worked in the slums of São Paulo every summer, but she had no idea there was an entire field devoted to designing for the greater good until she got to RISD.
As an Industrial Design major, Dranoff began engaging with global issues both in the studio and through extracurricular opportunities like the annual A Better World by Design symposium and her 2014 Maharam STEAM Fellowship with media outlet Porvir in São Paulo. She participated in Wintersession design projects in Costa Rica and Sri Lanka but felt that she wasn’t making a tangible impact on global problems. So she was especially excited when she discovered an opportunity to do so as she was completing her thesis project senior year.
In researching how to distribute high- and low-tech tools to the people around the world who need them most, Dranoff came across American businessman Whit Alexander, founder of a company called Burro in Ghana, West Africa. When Alexander started Burro in 2011, the plan was to distribute useful products like solar-powered generators, cell phone chargers and foot-powered irrigation systems in Ghana via local middlemen who earn a sales commission. The company now hopes to develop and manufacture such products locally in conjunction with the people who end up using them.
“It’s important to develop and test products in context and to speed up the iterative design process by building prototypes on site,” Dranoff says. In the past, she explains, Burro worked with college students at Stanford’s d.school and elsewhere to begin developing products for Ghanaians, but the ideas rarely got off the ground before students would graduate and move on.
Dranoff eagerly signed on as Burro’s first design fellow, which enabled her to work in Ghana for seven months after graduation. She began to address the problem of products dying before getting to market by using funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and social innovation NGO Catapult Design to build an R&D lab and maker space for fabricating prototypes on site in Koforidua, Ghana. Designed around the country’s chronic power outages—where electricity is generally available for 12 hours and then unavailable for 24—the facility will be up and running this summer.
Rethinking local tools
One of the first products Dranoff focused on at Burro is a tool for roasting cassava, a dietary staple throughout western Africa. “Women roast cassava to make gari flour, a really important part of their diet,” she explains. “The traditional method involves lots of steps—peeling, washing, grating, fermenting, drying and then roasting the cassava in big cast-aluminum pans over a wood-burning mud stove.” In addition to being labor intensive, she says, the process involves breathing in a lot of smoke, and women are only able to produce a small amount of flour after working all day.
Burro is currently testing a foot-powered mechanism that will allow for hands-free roasting, a chimney for containing the smoke and an affordable stainless-steel pan that can be baked right into the mud stove. But as Dranoff knows, though communicating across cultures is a very real challenge, it’s crucial to get honest feedback from the people who will be using the new device.
“You need to show people a physical object and clearly communicate your idea,” she says. “It’s all about letting go of your preconceived notions, understanding the problem holistically and thinking about the user first and foremost.
“You also need to consider second-use scenarios,” Dranoff adds. For instance, when Ghanaian women asked her if the roasting pan would be waterproof and rustproof, she initially thought they were concerned about rain. “But it turns out that after they finish making cassava for the day, they fill the pan with water while it’s still hot—to warm it up for bathing,” she explains. “That’s one example of how important it is to understand the user.”
Now that she’s back in the US, Dranoff is working with RISD Careers to recruit students to intern with Burro this summer. She’s also planning the next move in her own career. “I want to continue working in this field, but I would like to work closer to home,” she says, “either on the East Coast or in Brazil, where I have family. I’ve always been interested in international development and plan to stay engaged in this kind of meaningful work.”
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