This week marked a major milestone in my life: for the first time ever, I left the continent of North America.
I’ve long had an interest in travelling and spent a good chunk of the last decade flying and driving all over my home continent. From Burns Lake, BC to Atlanta, GA and many places in between, each city brought exciting new experiences and memories I’ll not soon forget.
As great as each of these trips has been, ultimately the foundations of North American cities share more in common than they differ. Consistently paved roads, clear and legible wayfinding, generally solid infrastructure, and — well — safe drinking water.
None of which can be said of the city where my partner and I are currently staying. While paved roads exist most are dirt, street signs are often non-existent, electricity turns off for seemingly no rhyme or reason,1 and the water is best served post-boiling.
This city, for those who missed the news on Twitter, is Kampala, Uganda.
Home to ~1.5MM people, Kampala is the largest city in a country of over 37MM. For a bit of perspective, the population density of Vancouver — Canada’s most dense city — is 5,492/km2 while Kampala’s clocks in at 7,928/km2.
Of course population density isn’t the only difference between these two cities. However, when you also consider the state of each city’s infrastructure, cultural differences, and overall quality of life, it becomes clear that we aren’t comparing oranges with oranges.
Not to mention the rest of Uganda, both urban and rural.
All of this is simply to point out one simple truth: Uganda is unlike any country I’ve ever been. And as a designer that both excites and scares the shit out of me.
A couple of months ago, my friend and colleague Boris Mann introduced me to Ed Levinson. Ed is an angel investor who has has been traveling to Uganda every January since 2011 to run umpiring training camps for Kampala’s little league teams.2
Through this experience, Ed “[became] interested in the educational and entrepreneurial aspects of international development” which led to a relationship with Ugandan founders David & Gerald. Their startup, Ensibuuko, provides cloud-based banking software solutions to microfinance institutions.
These institutions — Savings and Credit Cooperatives and Village Savings and Loans Associations — serve sub-Saharan Africa’s 500 million unbanked individuals. Unlike a bank, which in Africa provides its services at rates unaffordable by many people, these microfinance institutions aim to provide people the ability to save and borrow money when doing so with a bank is cost prohibitive.
Like many other aspects of Ugandan life, these institutions lack the infrastructure commonly found in North American financial institutions. Ensibuuko aims to provide that infrastructure and to do so in a way that is native to Ugandan culture.
As a product designer, it is my job to uncover the jobs for which a customer will “hire” a product. Through a discovery process that involves user interviews and discussions around business models and strategy, I try to help founders and product managers understand what their customers need and design solutions to bring that value to the customer. Perhaps I am a bit naive, but I believe a significant portion of our collective understanding comes from a familiarity with North American culture — people, for the most part, work roughly 40 hours a week and are looking for ways to save time and get more done, faster.
Now two days into my time here in Kampala, I realize none of that familiarity applies.
And so, it will be my job to figure out how to apply best practices of product design to the problems Ensibuuko aims to solve. My hope is that the processes and methodologies I’ve learned over the last decade will help. User research, design sprints, job stories, prototyping, and user testing are the tools I intend to use to discover how to design a product for the Ugandan people. I’m sure I’ll have some missteps. Perhaps I will find it difficult to translate processes and skills I cultivated in North America to an African context. My goal is to write and share the lessons I learn along the way for those who will surely follow in my footsteps.