SafariSeat: Fighting The Poverty Cycle With Open Design

Uji is currently working on the development of SafariSeat, an all-terrain wheelchair for people in developing countries.

Safari Seat

Inclusive design is often referred to as maximising user diversity to make something suit as many people as possible. In the context of a traditional commercial market, inclusive design can mean more customers. In the context of poverty-stricken communities in developing countries, inclusive design can mean solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. Social enterprise Uji considers higher level inclusion such as geography and economics to be just as important as the inclusion of specific individuals’ needs.

Recently founded by a team of award-winning designers and inventors, Uji’s mission is to design tools that help people in developing communities to lift themselves out of the poverty cycle.

“There is great power in being able to see from each other’s perspective, to understand how one another feels and to have true empathy for those with backgrounds different to our own. Our beliefs, our habits, our unique abilities; diversity is life’s greatest asset, which makes inclusion one of our greatest design challenges” explains co-founder Cara O’Sullivan.

The real roots of the problem

Uji is currently working on the development of SafariSeat, an all-terrain wheelchair for people in developing countries. Uji views SafariSeat as more than just a means of personal mobility; it’s a means of personal independence. Their wheelchair will provide users with greater access to education, employment, and social inclusion.

SafariSeat co-founder, Janna Deeble, experienced an accident which left him wheelchair-bound for three months. Janna grew up in rural Kenya where he met Letu, a man disabled by polio, living an isolated, traditional lifestyle. Janna’s wheelchair experience reminded him of Letu and for the first time, he began to more clearly understand the reality of his situation.

People living in both poverty and disability are caught in a vicious cycle, a cycle that is almost impossible to break out of. After receiving a donated wheelchair from a charity, Letu’s happiness was short-lived as the wheelchair was not designed for the rough terrain where he lived. When it broke, he discovered he could not afford the costs to have it repaired locally; losing his independence once again.

Uji’s design process centres around empathy; getting to know people as people, not just as users. A large proportion of the designers’ time is spent immersed in the lives of the intended users, at first simply understanding how they live, observing the hurdles they face; and later, revisiting them, using their feedback to hone and modify their designs. A balance of ethnography, journey mapping and co-design enabled Janna to thoroughly understand the root of Letu’s problem and develop SafariSeat as a response to his genuine needs.

Designing in the open

“Open design is empowering, inclusive and ethically sound – it creates a better product by crowdsourcing ideas and experience” explains Deeble. “We have witnessed how sharing in this way can foster collaboration between citizens of the world and create goodwill.”

By offering a pictographic construction manual that transcends language barriers, anyone with the necessary skills and resources can contribute to improving the design of SafariSeat, or modify it to suit their locality.  At the same time, it ensures implementation of the design causes minimal disruption to local cultures and lifestyles.

Top Three Design Principles From Uji

Affordability is one of the most crucial requirements when designing for people in developing countries. If a product is not designed to meet a well-calculated price target, then it is likely to never reach the intended user. SafariSeat was designed to be made entirely from locally available materials and bicycle components, to minimise costs without compromising safety.

Collaboration with local organisations is the most resourceful way to utilise existing distribution channels and to reach users. The designers of SafariSeat have been working with an organisation called APDK who have invaluable expertise in local manufacturing techniques, locally available materials and supply chain management. The expertise from such organisations is essential for making products suitable for sustained long-term use.

Local maintenance of a product is vital if it is to have a lasting impact. SafariSeat uses local resources and the skills of local people, creating local jobs in a self-sustaining industry, which in itself relieves poverty. Locally maintainable products are more attractive to micro-entrepreneurs since they hold the potential to generate future commercial possibilities through servicing and custom modifications to suit specific needs of locals.

Moving forward with SafariSeat

The more time designers spend surrounded by the people and contexts they are designing for, the more insights they are able to collect, which helps refine product specifications and shape the direction of future work. The future of open design organisations like Uji largely relies upon achieving sustainable business models to allow for continual research and development whilst freely sharing their work. Such business models tend to seek income from sources other than product sales. According to Cara, Uji has spent the past two years working in collaboration with organisations across developing regions to develop a unique sustainable businesses model. Uji is now in the last few days of running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to set up workshops and manufacture SafariSeats across Africa; to watch a short video about the SafariSeat story, head over to


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