As part of our ongoing Web Design Across the World series, this article looks at one of the broadest and far-reaching topics yet: web design in Africa. We’ll begin by laying out a solid picture of Africa in general, then look at the impact that has on its web design culture.
Before We Begin
When Ian first asked me to write about such a huge topic, I was both excited and terrified. But stepping back, I realized this would be a good opportunity to show what Africa has to offer.
Most scholars, historians and political scientists view Africa as having five cultural-geographic regions;
- North Africa
- West Africa
- Central Africa
- East Africa
- Southern Africa
However, it’s difficult to know where to kick things off, because Africa comprises 54 countries (recognized African Union members) across 30,000 km²; an area which holds one third of the world’s mining wealth. So rich, and yet so poor! This startling contrast leads me to the perfect starting point: addressing a couple of the misconceptions about Africa.
#1 Africans were illiterate before colonization
To a degree this is true; most were, but writing was brought to sub-Saharan Africa from the Middle East at various points throughout history (also how writing reached Europe.) The Arabic script has been used by black Africans to write Swahili and Wolof for many centuries, and Ethiopia has used its Semitic-derived script for well over a millennium. Some others were exposed to writing but rejected it (interesting story), and the written word simply failed to make its way to the rest.
#2 Africa lacked civilization before European contact
If you define “civilization” as being big cities, literacy, and centralized states, then this is partly true. It is important to recognize, though, that Africans’ environment often made farming difficult (poor soil), urbanization irresponsible (tropical disease), and husbandry impossible (disease again). These were the main ingredients that led to “civilization” elsewhere, and Africans adapted to make their own civilizations which best suited their surroundings.
Many exceptions to this rule—the Swahili city states, writing in Ethiopia, higher learning in Timbuktu—did involve adapting concepts imported from the Middle East, though before long they became fully African. There are also glaring exceptions: the architectural marvels of the Great Zimbabwe, advanced medicine in Bunyoro (Uganda) and others. The truth, as always, is nuanced.
Having covered those misconceptions, I would like to speak about the undeniable influence of colonialism. Africa has been colonialized by many countries, most notably: Germany, Portugal, Spain, France, and England.
Colonialism results in, among other things, cultural and behavioral transfer. The slave trade and colonialism destroyed traditional cultures and social systems in Africa south of the Sahara; Africa is still recovering from the effects of the slave trade and colonialism.
Before Europeans arrived, Africans had varied ways of life under different kinds of governments. Kings ruled great empires like Mali and Songhai. Some states had democratic rule. Some groups had no central government. Some Africans lived in great cities like Timbuktu, while others lived in small villages deep in the forests. Some were nomadic hunters, and some were skilled artists who sculpted masks and statues of wood, gold, or bronze.
Slavery existed in Africa long before Europeans arrived. Rulers in Mali and Songhai had thousands of slaves who worked as servants, soldiers, and farm workers. Villages raided one another to take captives and sell them. Often, a slave could work to earn his or her freedom. In the 1400s, however, Europeans introduced a form of slavery, shipping huge numbers to the New World, which devastated African life and society.
In addition to the Africans captured and sold, many were killed during raids. About two-thirds of those taken were men between the ages of 18 and 30. Slave traders chose young, strong, healthy people, leaving few behind to lead families and villages. African cities and towns did not have enough workers. Family structures were destroyed.
When Europeans ended the slave trade during the turn of the 19th century, they did not lose interest in Africa. The Industrial Revolution had changed economies in Europe and the United States. Africa could supply both raw materials, such as minerals, and new markets for goods.
Europeans knew little about the interior of Africa, but many were curious. Scientists and explorers were interested in African wildlife and natural resources. European missionaries also traveled to Africa performing their religious and social work. Their aim was to convert Africans to Christianity and bring education and health care to Africa. Many also taught European ways of thinking, which often conflicted with, and destroyed, African traditions.
It’s a massive and interesting subject, but I’ll stop there because this is not an article about colonialism. The main purpose of this section was to set the background for African influences–so now it’s time to add some web design context.
Setting the Stage
Let’s talk about some generalities relating to the web design industry in some regions of Africa.
Lack of Core Web Designers
Web design is a young role in the creative industry of Africa. When you meet a web designer, it’s likely they come from the print industry, or perhaps they define themselves as a “programmer”.
You will rarely see “Interface Design” as a module in “Web design” curricula of design schools, or training centers in Africa. Web design is tarred with the same brush as front-end development for the majority of founders of these schools, especially in French-speaking Africa. This attitude is not so prevalent in the more developed English-speaking nations of Africa.
That isn’t always the case, however, as Daine Mawer says in his article, Land Of Opposites: State of Web Industry in South Africa:
“Unfortunately, one of South Africa’s greatest pitfalls is education in web-based technologies. This is largely due to the fact that our internet and connectivity in more rural areas is limited. Aside from that, web oriented professionals are for the most part, self-taught. […] Our struggle here lies with the fact that the Department of Education doesn’t fully acknowledge web-related skills as being a credible degree to study.” – Daine Mawer
And it’s the same in Cameroon, my country. I’m self-taught too, even if after some years in the field, I graduated from the www.thegraphicdesignschool.com.au!
Africa has many talented programmers, database engineers, and developers, because computer science was once a high priority in some educational systems. But the design and web-based side has been neglected for too long, and often, that’s still the case.
The graphic designer who wants to design for the web, often lacks understanding of the constraints of this new medium, and the programmer or front-end developer is not always aware of user interface design principles. And worst of all, they lack knowledge of design fundamentals, which is why you’ll see perfectly functional websites or web applications, but with poor interfaces and ill-considered user experience.
And many lack the humility (or will?) to learn about design, especially in French-speaking Africa.This is a gloomy picture, but it’s the truth.
Do what I say, designer, because I’m the one who’s paying you!
There’s a problem in the business of web design in Africa.
“Communication or/and web design agencies are under a client’s diktat, and the lack of job security doesn’t give enough liberty to designers (both graphic and web) to recommend solutions, that’s why the level in the industry is decreasing. Many designers could be more influential if they were freelancers! But it’s not that easy!” – Charles Dadié, Graphic designer, Côte d’Ivoire.
This leads to a qualitative gap between web design agencies’ websites and their clients’ websites. For instance, let’s have a look on the Moroccan web portal, and at the website of a Moroccan agency:
I live the same situation in Cameroon, but my little studio, Lotin Corp. is independent, and we can be more selective about the clients and the projects we work for. We enjoy enough liberty to recommend and often impose solutions, because we have a user-centered approach. Very often, our clients are put off, until they begin to see a ROI.
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
In English-speaking Africa, there are more design aware people; people who are concerned with user interface and user experience design. And, increasingly, there are more people in French-speaking Africa who want to learn about these principles.
Thanks to Envato Market and other marketplaces, we now, in Africa, have access to professional looking and mobile-friendly interfaces to start our web design projects. This helps more than you might realize; encouraging the visual quality, and the usability of these projects.
Startup Culture and Startup Hubs
There’s a glimmer of hope coming from the startup world, though it’s not having a rapid impact. Why not?
Let’s take the Google for Entrepreneurs initiative for example: all major tech hubs are based in English-speaking areas:
- ccHub: Lagos, Nigeria
- Jozihub: Johannesburg, South Africa
- iHub: Nairobi, Kenya
- iSpaces: Accra, Ghana
- Outbox: Kampala, Uganda
As I said, English-speaking Africa is ahead of French-speaking Africa, because they have the advantage of language (the best book resources, courses, and tutorials tend to be in English, though the Tuts+ Translation Project aims to change that).
That said, there are some good hubs in French-speaking Africa:
- Kmr start-up hub: Douala, Cameroon
- It kola: Yaounde, Cameroon
- Entreprenarium: Libreville, Gabon
- JA Business innovation lab: Libreville, Gabon
- CTIC: Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
- JokkoLabs: East Africa and France
“The gap between Francophone and Anglophone incubators in Africa, results from the divergent approaches. While Anglophone incubators are networking (incubators, business angels, venture capital, influencers), co-organize events together and structure a dynamic ecosystem; Francophone are still struggling to organize, remain in the general discourse that have a negative impact on the growth of startups they incubate.” – Christian Essame, co-Founder of Kmr start-up hub
With all that said, let’s look at some influences.
The Colonialism Influence
If you can’t make it, fake it!
Colonialism has always found expression by the style of the colonist. If the colonist is France, you will often see a French overtone in the design of that colony.
Each of Africa’s areas has a “technology leader”, for instance, in Central Africa it’s Cameroon, in Northern Africa it’s Morocco, in Southern Africa it’s South Africa Republic, and in West Africa it’s Côte d’Ivoire; meaning that all of the major graphic design and web design work is outsourced to them. Even though some tech events facilitate the communication between the tech communities, this reality remains.
This is the official website of the Republic of France:
As a logical first-stop source of inspiration, many French-speaking African Government websites appear to emulate the example above.
A quick survey of 26 Presidential and Government websites (from both English-speaking Africa and French-speaking Africa), their design patterns, technologies, and their responsiveness, revealed the following:
|Separate Mobile version||11.54%
|Technology (or CMS)|
The dominant CMS in this range of websites is Joomla (19.23%) and 50% of these websites are either responsive or serving a dedicated mobile version.
Some Solid Examples
Some of these user interfaces go far beyond the quality of the Republic of France official website–here’s a selection:
eCommerce in Africa
eCommerce in Africa is a rapidly growing area of opportunity. Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, is leading the way in eCommerce growth, with 65% of the country’s 50 million internet users having at one time or another shopped online. This is according to a recent study conducted in Nigeria by Ipsos, a global market research company, on behalf of PayPal.
The results of the study confirm Nigeria as Africa’s leading eCommerce nation in their amount of potential and existing online shoppers, which is at 89%, compared to South Africa’s 70%, and Kenya’s 60%.
The leading marketplaces (after my research, since there is no official ranking) are:
These all have at least an Android app for their eCommerce marketplaces, since the greatest part of African customers access the internet via mobile. These marketplaces are also, in terms of interface design, good students of world leaders like Amazon and eBay.
Trust and Logistics
According to Ndubuisi Ekekwe, founder of the non-profit African Institution of Technology in his article The Challenges Facing E-Commerce Start-ups in Africa:
“E-commerce in Africa could be very profitable; it will just take time and effort. Leaders of the continent must understand that besides launching websites, there are many elements entrepreneurs need to be profitably successful. These include more integration of the disparate African economies; investing in infrastructures like postal system, broadband, and transportation networks; setting up a pan-African system to prosecute fraud and improve business trust in African internet; and most importantly, improving literacy rates.” – Ndubuisi Ekekwe
Across the seven countries surveyed in the 2015 Pew Research Center Report, roughly two thirds or more say they own a cell phone. Ownership is especially high in South Africa and Nigeria, where about nine in every ten people have a cell phone.
Since 2002, cell phone ownership has exploded in the countries where trends are available. In 2002, only 8% of Ghanaians said they owned a mobile phone, while that figure stands at 83% today, a more than tenfold increase. Similar growth in mobile penetration is seen in all African countries where survey data is available. By comparison, as of December 2014, 89% of American adults owned a cell phone, up from 64% ownership in 2002.
The highly educated are particularly likely to own cell phones and smartphones. For instance, 93% of Ugandans with a secondary education or greater own a cell phone, compared with 61% of those with less education. And in South Africa, 57% with a secondary education or more own a smartphone versus 13% with less education.
Three-quarters of Ugandans who speak or read at least some English own a mobile phone, while only about half (48%) of those with no English language skills own one. And one third of English-speaking Nigerians own a smartphone, compared with 2% of Nigerians who do not have the ability to read or speak at least some English.
In his TED Talk of March 2014, You don't need an app for that, Toby Shapshak says:
“[…] the thing that's so remarkable about the payment system that's been pioneered in Africa called M-Pesa is that it works on phones like this. It works on every single phone possible, because it uses SMS. You can pay bills with it, you can buy your groceries, you can pay your kids' school fees, and I'm told you can even bribe customs officials. (Laughter) Something like 25 million dollars a day is transacted through M-Pesa. Forty percent of Kenya's GDP moves through M-Pesa using phones like this.” – Toby Shapshak
Making or receiving payments on cell phones, also referred to as mobile money, is not as common as texting and taking pictures. But in Kenya, 61% of mobile owners use their device to transfer money. And many people in neighboring Uganda (42%) and Tanzania (39%) also participate in this activity on their cell phones. One of the reasons usage is so much higher in these countries is the prominence of mobile money services, such as M-PESA in Kenya and Tanzania and MTN Mobile Money in Uganda and Cameroon. Elsewhere in Africa, mobile banking is less common.
Design patterns and Technologies
Some of large eCommerce platforms display common design patterns, echoing the eBay and Amazon user interfaces:
Some of these examples redirect to a dedicated mobile version when viewed on mobile devices (check the m in the url):
Some of the other examples are responsive, but one common practice with this type of interface is a prompt to download the mobile App: whether it’s on top (Jumia, Kaymu), on bottom (Souq) or full screen (Takealot).
Mobile or desktop, the similarities between them all are undeniable. Some of you may think: “Copy and paste” design, but let me use the words of Paul Boag from his article Design convergence is not a dirty word:
“The longer an object is around the more its design standardises. Take for example the automobile or the bicycle. When these were first invented their designs varied. But over time they began to converge. They converged on an optimal design but also on one that the majority of people were familiar with.” – Paul Boag
Africa, both English-speaking and French-speaking, is following global design trends, and eCommerce behavior. But Africa is also leading in mobile banking technology, working to solve the world’s common problems, and removing the need for credit cards when purchasing online. Many people are becoming aware of user interface design and the user’s experience; and more than half the websites I surveyed are mobile-friendly through responsive design, or specific mobile versions.
We have talented agencies and studios in Africa, and most importantly, talented and skilled people. The future of web design in Africa is bright, undoubtedly!
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