Applying Human Centered Design to Solvable Problems

Caring, Sharing, and Awareness Within and Beyond the Nigerian Tomato Value Chain

The amount of post-harvest loss (PHL) in countries of the Global South is familiar to many by now. In Africa alone, 50 percent of fruits and vegetables, 40 percent of roots and tubers, and 20 percent of cereals—all of which are staple foods—are lost after harvest or during processing. Fortunately, solutions to PHL exist and with pilots underway attempting to introduce low-fidelity technologies into the equation, the future of reduced PHL looks promising. While PHL is a solvable problem, the timely diffusion of applicable technologies into the local context remains challenging. And the negative repercussions of insensitive approaches of noble intent should be identified and avoided early in the process.

The power of solutions lives primarily in the people who believe in and own them.

—V. Srinavas

Any reasonable attempt to integrate a new technology into a community must not only take into account the confluences and contradictions inherent in the human condition, but also nurture new behaviors that resonate with all stakeholders. This is one reason why human centered design (HCD) is emerging as an important practice in the world of international development. HCD aims to reframe what we know and what we think we know by testing newly formed assumptions through a crystallization of discovered insights and design iteration. Empathy is the foundational posture of each step in the HCD process.

This is one reason why human centered design (HCD) is emerging as an important practice in the world of international development. HCD aims to reframe what we know and what we think we know by testing newly formed assumptions through a crystallization of discovered insights and design iteration. Empathy is the foundational posture of each step in the HCD process.

With this in mind, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and PYXERA Global teamed up to integrate HCD in efforts to reduce PHL in the tomato value chain in northern Nigeria. Through this three-phase project, SCAD alumni living in Africa conducted HCD research with stakeholders in the tomato value chain and the supporting basket value chain. Utilizing the insights and research from the field, a class in the Design for Sustainability program at SCAD developed a pilot project to introduce an alternative approach to tomato transportation. The project will culminate in the pilot’s launch and subsequent results.

Defining Principles that Frame Potential Action

While similarities in PHL reduction strategies for various agricultural products are abundant, each geographic region and crop embodies a unique set of opportunities and challenges. In Nigeria, for example, over 750,000 metric tons of tomatoes are lost to PHL. Looking more closely at the specific factors that lead to such dramatic loss in Nigeria, a few observations can be made. First, the value of a single tomato is rarely acknowledged in relation to the same product in bulk: A focus on transporting bulk quantities has precluded the safeguarding of the individual fruit.

For smallholder farmers, careful handling of each tomato is further disincentivized by the awareness of the treacherous journey that lies ahead for their harvest. This same uncertainty is found among stakeholders at each point along the value chain, normalizing an insidious form of collective neglect. What has resulted over time should be a surprise to no one: a self-fulfilling system of commodity delivery that regards single-unit care irrelevant and the significant loss on the long journey to the market as normal.

Graduate students map out a pilot project to introduce an alternative approach to tomato transportation in Northern Nigeria in the SCAD Collaborative Learning Center.

The goal of any HCD process is to locate, distill, and articulate unique aspects of the human condition as it pertains to a specific time, place, and situation. In doing so, context-sensitive solutions reveal themselves. Our findings to date for the tomato value chain in Nigeria have identified three characteristics of the value chain that, while not unique to it, are distinct enough within it to warrant further consideration when weighing the value of various solution pathways. Along with these three characteristics, there exists a multiplier effect:

  • The perceived insignificance of individual tomatoes leads to neglect.
  • The large number of transfers leads to lack of trust in the system to deliver quality.
  • The belief that loss is normal leads to complacency.
  • Nigerian tomatoes are a fragile product in a treacherous system (this is the multiplier effect).

Neglect, lack of trust, and complacency are enough to undermine the success of any endeavor, let alone one that is already vulnerable due to a product’s inherent fragility, and the treacherous state of supporting infrastructure. Such a distillation of insights is essential in setting the conditions for ranking the relative value of potential solutions and solution suites. Yet, these insights lead to another insight that provides more clarity: only one of the four insights is based on an indisputable fact (tomatoes are fragile). The rest are habits of mind. Thus, a clear and simple design principle that can guide the rest of the process for reducing PHL in the tomato value chain reveals itself: an emphasis on caring, sharing, and awareness must be at the forefront of any technological intervention aimed at reducing tomato PHL in northern Nigeria.

Far from being a principle solely to guide process, this framing can be applied as a mantra for both those with day-to-day experience handling the tomatoes, and for external actors attempting to reduce PHL. With a framing device that defines caring, sharing, and awareness as essential elements of any solution, the development team can determine where the lack of these elements most impact PHL for Nigerian tomatoes as well as other intertwined value chains. A suite of solutions that are appropriately scaled at each stage in the value chain can be shaped from best practices presently emerging from the field. Aggregation centers that are equipped with region-sensitive, low-fidelity technologies can act as hubs for storytelling, education, and cross-pollination of ideas. New norms of care in handling tomatoes can be gestated within select groups, and diffused through the larger population.

Basket Weaving: An Intertwined Value Chain

Yet, other value chains that are interwoven with the tomato value chain must not be neglected on the way to addressing PHL. In recognition of this, SCAD’s HCD team compiled primary research on stakeholder interactions within the raffia basket industry in southern Nigeria. While the raffia baskets used for transporting tomatoes represent a significant positive economic force for basket weavers in southern Nigeria, the baskets are detrimental to the health of tomatoes. The texture of raffia tears at the tomatoes, while the lack of the material’s structural integrity results in compression of the fruit at every stage of transport and transfer.

SCAD Alumna, Claire Komujuni, conducted HCD research with stakeholders in the tomato value chain and the supporting basket value chain.

The use of plastic crates has proven successful in many regions of the world, and more pilot programs involving them are launching every day. Yet the assumption that plastic crates are the only solution should be avoided. A key characteristic of resilience, after all, is diversity. And scaling the use of plastic crates too quickly will create repercussions that ripple across the Nigerian economy with harmful consequences. Research reflects that establishing a rigorous supplemental pilot project that encourages the use of alternative basket weaving materials is essential given that plastic crate usage will grow exponentially of its own accord.

Plastic crates imbue a sense of care for tomatoes that raffia does not and a growing number of smallholder farmers are recognizing the benefits of retiring raffia. It can be predicted with a fair degree of confidence that the resistance to change that has been exhibited in the past by smallholder farmers in adopting plastic crates will quickly morph into a demand for them. It’s easy to imagine a near future where raffia basket weavers find themselves making products that fewer and fewer customers are demanding.

Thankfully, there is significant research on the local availability of bamboo (gora) in Nigeria, and our HCD research has confirmed that weaving baskets from this renewable resource is already a
lucrative and familiar vocation. However, because raffia is a cheaper material, there are far less gora baskets sold in relation to baskets made from the raffia palm. Gora is smoother, more durable, and more rigid than raffia, and thus represents significant performance improvements over raffia. Unlike plastic, gora is sustainably sourced and biodegradable. Initiatives that nurture local manufacturing of baskets made from gora can assure a maintained level of local economic vitality at best, and at worst, can stabilize a rapid dissolution of the raffia basket economy.

Partnering with raffia basket weavers to integrate gora—and perhaps to create new basket forms that are modified for better stacking in transit—could result in shared prosperity throughout and between the intertwined value chains of tomatoes and baskets. This could potentially improve social cohesion between the tomato growers and the basket weavers as opposed to further fracturing this cultural and social divide.

These observations suggest the value of a diversified approach to the handling tomato technologies in Nigeria rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. They also suggest the value of a middle-path between plastic and raffia that provides basket weavers a continuing stake in the local economy, while still significantly reducing PHL. In such a scenario, the level of care within the entire system—not just the tomato value chain—would be enhanced. The challenge is to instill the same sense of urgency for change among basket weavers as experienced by smallholder farmers. Reaching basket weavers with a message that resonates is the surest way to prevent a collapse in their trade. SCAD alumni and HCD team member Claire Komujuni observed, “It was important for us to identify, observe and understand the dynamics of the cultural and societal norms influencing the smooth running of the tomato and basket value chains respectively. The communities we came in contact with, clearly indicated the challenges that might be faced with the introduction of a new technology in the near future.”

Specifically because PHL is solvable, it’s imperative to create conditions that proactively address the likely repercussions the solution to one problem might trigger. Assessing the momentum of change underway, and planning for the consequences of that change is one way to prevent an entirely new cycle of dilemmas from developing. Caring, sharing, and awareness, therefore, should not be limited to recommendations, but should inform our very own actions. These actions, within and beyond the tomato value chain, should embrace the notion that “suites of solutions” aimed at incrementally enhancing the level of care along the journey are at the heart of any sustainable solution. Solutions that do not emphasize care for the individual product; that do not encourage the sharing of roles, responsibilities, and rewards to ensure an increase in shared profit; and that do not generate awareness of the real value of each tomato are bound to fail, no matter how innovative the technology, partnership, or approach.

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