During his 2017 visit to Kenya, Jack Ma, the CEO of the Alibaba Group, told a group of young East African entrepreneurs, “E-commerce is the future. If you are not there, you are nowhere.” By announcing his intention to build up a local version of Alipay, Ma seemed confident that the lessons and experience gained by rapidly increasing the digital market penetration in China would help guide the parallel process in East Africa and across the wider continent. In the process, Alibaba would have a greater stake in the massive growth potential in East African e-commerce and strengthen the political and infrastructural links between China and Africa. But is this a viable vision, or does it place too much faith in the power of network technology to override the unique social and cultural qualities that shape design and trade in every local economy?

This project explores how Chinese e-commerce technology can be implemented in the context of central Uganda by setting up an online shoe shop in collaboration with Barbara Ahimbise, a Chinese language student living in Kampala. While mobile money is widely used in East Africa, online commerce is neither trusted nor facilitated at an institutional level in Uganda. The government’s controversial introduction of a social media tax, low faith in online payments, and lack of familiarity with online services have all contributed to this climate. In contrast, small unofficial shops or street vendors constitute a widespread and bustling business, but without an alternative financial infrastructure they remain vulnerable to the threat of eviction. E-Hustling East-Africa asks whether Ugandan street vendors can build a new business model based on online vending, using the Alibaba toolbox to grow into an adaptive local-online business hybrid.



As designers, what is your role in this project? How do you relate to global politics and economic shifts through your practice?

We see our role as collaborators, observers and intermediaries. We always aim for collaboration with people who are deeply involved in the specific context. In this project, we decided to start a business together with Barbara Ahimbise, a Chinese language student in Uganda, therefore we took the role of business partners. This allowed us to explore the shoe vending business firsthand, both online and offline. We used this as a case study to relate to global issues on a qualitative level—zooming in to the action itself and zooming out to connect it to a bigger chain of global relations. This method enables us to mediate between different scales of complex systems.

Do you think the hybrid business platform between Ugandan vendors and Chinese digital tools creates space for different kinds of design to circulate in the world? What unique qualities did you observe in the products, networks, or market cultures of Uganda?

We observed an impressive amount of diversity mixed with very similar mass-produced products. Everything is produced very cheaply and therefore needs to be exchanged and sold as quickly as possible. This creates a rapid circulation of products, and it is more common to buy cheap and replace quickly than to have a selected range of expensive, high-quality goods. In the European design culture this would be seen as a bad thing, but the reality is not that simple. A business model based on a small number of high-cost objects is much riskier for a vendor in the Ugandan economy. And there are also positive aspects of this low-cost, fast-turnover market: there seems to be an unfathomable amount of variations on the same product, and the psychological attachment to the objects seems to be different. Meanwhile, the people we met seemed to have a more entrepreneurial mindset: they didn’t want to simply sustain themselves, but to really invest their energy into international business to fuel Uganda’s economic growth.

In design rhetoric, “local” is often used as a mark of authenticity and sustainability to make products seem virtuous. Do you have a more nuanced understanding of “local”?

We use the word “local” more to describe the opposite of global. For us, local does not necessarily mean sustainable, authentic, or high-quality. Local for us describes a specific context—a limited geographical frame with particular cultural, technological, and economic qualities. Global, on the other hand, describes a larger picture composed of several connected localities. To observe the local requires zooming in; to observe the global requires zooming out; and to understand both requires reflecting on the gradient between the two extremes

Project Images

Copyright Design Academy Eindhoven. Photographs by Nicole Marnati.