XXVI.5 September-October 2019
Page: 86
Digital Citation

My heart is in Havana: Designing with marginalized African communities

Anicia Peters, Hafeni Mthoko, Shaimaa Lazem, Heike Winschiers-Theophilus, Maletsabisa Molapo

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One of the goals of the Africa Human Computer Interaction (HCI) conference (AfriCHI) series is to build capacity in HCI teaching, research, and industry across the African continent. This is a daunting task, however, as a workshop and panel discussion on HCI education at the inaugural AfriCHI revealed [1]. University faculty indicated that they have not undergone formal training in HCI, and, with a lack of resources that are also context specific, they are ill equipped to deal with the task at hand. Furthermore, although African governments are pondering how best to address the imminent new capacity requirements brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they have yet to discover the field of HCI. The discussion has shifted to focus on areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data, but there is almost zero consideration for HCI. And while there are online offerings available in HCI, at least two hampering factors in pursuing such coursework exist. First, many universities and households lack reliable Internet access and smartphones. As mobile data is quite expensive, citizens use it mostly for self-directed learning. Second, HCI is virtually unknown and thus not seen as critical, like learning how to code—if it's even considered at all.

back to top  Insights


In order to address this capacity-building goal, three SIGCHI chapters in Africa—from Namibia, Egypt, and South Africa—co-organized a summer school in cooperation with SIGCHI at the Namibia University of Science and Technology.

The summer school had participants from across different countries in Africa and elsewhere: Namibia (3 participants), Egypt (2), Germany (1), Nigeria (3), South Africa (1), Ghana (1), and Kenya (2). The school taught HCI by integrating it with fieldwork and offered formal lectures on HCI, research methods, design and prototyping, and ethics. Field visits to an informal settlement, Havana, were integrated with a community liaison participating in the summer school. Groups were formed around specific problems identified by the community:

  • Crime: a solution to fight increasing crime within the informal settlement
  • Health and sanitation: a solution to manage the sanitation challenges
  • Land ownership: a solution to organize citizens around land ownership
  • Crowd voicing: a solution for citizens to voice their concerns and engage local government.

back to top  Case Studies

Each lecture was followed by a case study derived from actual research projects in Egypt, Namibia, and South Africa. The participants also shared case examples from their research work. Each facilitator shared a case study from an African context and elicited various discussions around the challenges and lessons learned. The case studies further offered the school participants an opportunity to identify issues within the case studies that related to their own work and the opportunity to identify issues that may be unique to the African context.

Participants also shared their own work and reflected on their fieldwork in relation to what could and should work within an African setting. Moreover, school participants were critically engaged in thought-provoking conversations on marginalization, technology, and social impact, and what this means for Africa.

back to top  Field Visits

A key assignment for the school participants was to utilize their newly learned HCI skills and apply them to a real-world context. Participants were introduced to an existing partner-community project within the informal settlement of Havana in Windhoek, Namibia. Participants visited the partner community on two occasions and engaged in interactive discussions with a community representative throughout the school. In this process, participants were exposed to challenges that the partner community faces and were asked to identify, along with the community, potential solutions.

A walking tour through Havana was organized. Participants engaged and informally interviewed community members on the street and in businesses while walking through Havana. This gave participants a sense of the daily life in the community. Despite initial fears about how the community would view the participants coming into their space, the interaction between the participants and the community was very natural, and participants got a warm reception. Some community members even bought soft drinks for the summer-school students. The walking tour was perceived differently by participants: Some were shocked by the size of the problems and felt they had little to contribute; others were optimistic that, despite the challenges, both community and participants could find solutions to some problems.

The summer school participants then continued with group projects and developed preliminary design solutions. Participants were able to return to the community for an entire day and engage in co-design sessions, prototyping ideas that addressed prominent challenges facing the Havana community.

Finally, the groups presented their projects and the community representative gave feedback. Besides facilitating community representation in all activities, in each group a Namibian student was responsible for ensuring continuity after the summer school.

back to top  Reflections

One summer school participant in the crime project described how, before the summer school, she had no interest in HCI, as she could not see its potential benefits. During the first visit to Havana, with the walking tour to meet and observe the community, they collected data through interviews and conversations. The students then went back to the lab/workshop and decided how to solve the problem from their own perspective. When the group returned for the full-day field visit, they were surprised to find that the community had a very clear idea of its own: The crime problem should be solved from the perpetrator's perspective. The perpetrators were in fact their own children, unemployed high school dropouts. This community did not want police involvement, but rather wanted a fix for the unemployment problem and for the perpetrators themselves to take responsibility for reducing crime. The community co-design participants also changed the persona to reflect a young high school dropout in the community. She reflected that all problems were interconnected, just like the community.

ins02.gif Walking tour among the community in Havana.

One summer school facilitator reflected:

Teaching at the summer school not only exposed me to HCI and development challenges in other contexts, but also presented me with the opportunity to learn about the diversity in projects that we as Africans should be proud of. I was presented with unique ways in which different scholars and researchers leverage the opportunities present within their own contexts to push the boundaries of HCI. Beyond that I felt empowered to be part of a team to support students to be change makers within their societies and start putting Africa on the HCI map as a producer of knowledge and knowledge that is relevant to Africa. Beyond the school itself, I have felt more challenged to start thinking about my own research more critically in terms of leveraging the disposition of African contexts to challenge existing ways of knowing and what this means for grooming future African researchers.

back to top  Conclusion

Concerned with ensuring that academia—community engagements benefit the communities and do not only provide a learning experience for students, we encouraged students to continue working on the projects beyond the school. The planning of the summer school entailed a well-thought-through structure and organization, where the community representative was an active participant of the summer school and organized all the field visits. We were happy that one Ph.D. and one master's student from the summer school are currently working on the school's projects such as the crowd voicing project. Another significant experience was the richness of the collaboration with lecturers and students from other countries; we observed similar ways of thinking and perceived similar challenges, despite contextual differences. The vast experience brought to the local situation, with different disciplinary and cultural perspectives, enabled the groups to develop novel and alternative solutions.

ins03.gif Co-design sessions with the Havana community.

There were 19 participants from the summer school and AfriCHI 2018 who subsequently had contributions at CHI 2019. These contributions were in the form of papers, posters, one doctoral consortium paper, symposium and workshop presentations, and talks. Three AfriCHI participants became co-organizers of the HCI Across Borders (HCIxB) Symposium. One first-time AfriCHI participant was a CHI 2019 Lites speaker, a Doctoral Consortium participant, and also had a poster. Unfortunately, lack of travel funding and one visa rejection prevented at least three participants from presenting their work at CHI 2019.

We believe the summer school experience was successful not just as a learning experience, but also as a cornerstone for building the African HCI community. We look forward to holding more regional schools specifically targeting HCI faculty, as it is more sustainable to train the trainer.

back to top  Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the AfriCHI summer school participants Daniel Diethei, Tochukwu Arinze Ikwunne, Yasmeen Abdrabou, Hilma Aludhilu, Andy Bayor, Christine Mburu, Aderonke Sakpere, Abdullahi Abubakar Kawu, Laura Cheptegei, Ryna Cilliers, Mennatallah Saleh, Victor Omolaoye, and Martha Mosha. We thank NUST students volunteers Josephina Muntuumo, Chris Paul Muashekele, Issac Vertino Lucio, Leonard Imene, and the Havana Community Representative Mr. Onesmus Shetunyenga.

back to top  References

1. Lazem, S. and Dray, S. Baraza!: Human-computer interaction education in Africa. Interactions 25, 2 (Mar.–Apr. 2018), 74–77;

back to top  Authors

Anicia Peters is the executive dean of the Faculty of Computing and Informatics at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. She established the local ACM SIGCHI chapter in Namibia and founded the AfriCHI conference series. Her research interests are in social media and digital transformation such as e-participation, including e-government, gender, and youth at risk. She is one of 10 African Women in Tech role models.

Hafeni Mthoko is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cape Town Centre in Information and Communications Technology for Development. Her research interests are in ICT4D evaluation, local collaboration, and community mapping for community wireless networks and digital citizen engagement. Her research projects included strategy formulation and evaluation toward designing a mobile social accountability monitoring tool in Eastern Cape South Africa.

Shaimaa Lazem is an Egyptian academic. Her research interests include HCI education, participatory design, and decolonizing HCI. She was awarded the Leaders in Innovation Fellowship with the Royal Academy of Engineering in London to support digital self-documentation of intangible cultural heritage. She is the co-founder of

Heike Winschiers-Theophilus is a professor of software design at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. Her research, teaching, and community outreach focus on co-designing technologies with indigenous and marginalized communities. She has established a number of long-term collaboration projects with Namibian communities in rural areas and urban informal settlements. She was awarded the title of Namibian national researcher and scientist in 2016.

Maletsabisa Molapo is a researcher at IBM Research - Africa. She researches, designs, builds, deploys, and evaluates human-centered AI solutions for rural and low-income urban areas in Africa, with applications in education and healthcare. She completed a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Cape Town (UCT), based at the Centre in ICT for Development (ICT4D).

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