Posted on 10/11/2016 by IED

Inclusive design means many things to many people. For poverty-stricken communities in developing countries, it can be a lifeline, as industrial designer Cara O’Sullivan MIED explains

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 a poverty-stricken community in a developing country, 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 works in developing regions of the world, creating open source designs to help people lift themselves out of the poverty cycle.

“There is great power in being able to look through each other’s eyes, 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,” says co-founder Cara O’Sullivan.


Uji is currently working on the development of SafariSeat, a wheelchair for people in developing countries. Mobility enables independence, which will give SafariSeat users better access to education, employment and social inclusion. The SafariSeat project was conceived after co-founder Janna Deeble experienced an accident which left him wheelchair-bound for three months. Janna grew up in rural Kenya alongside local people, which is when he first 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 understand the reality of his situation.

With a mission as ambitious as Uji’s, it is essential that the real roots of a problem are fully understood before attempting to find a solution. As Einstein said: “If I had one hour to solve something, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding a solution.”

People such as Letu ,who live with poverty at the same time as having a disability, are caught in a vicious cycle; which is almost impossible to break out of. After receiving a donated wheelchair from a charity, Letu thought himself lucky, but this was short-lived, as the wheelchair was not designed for the rough terrain where he lived. When it broke, he discovered it could not be easily or affordably repaired locally, so the donated chair quickly became redundant.

Uji’s design process centres on 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 Uji to understand thoroughly the root of Letu’s problem and develop SafariSeat as a response to his genuine needs.


“Open design is empowering, inclusive and ethically sound – it creates a better product by building on 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.

Uji carries the ethos that product design should ideally result in a flexible solution: something intended to be adapted to its context to suit different cultures and environments accordingly, similar to nature’s own ‘design’ process. This philosophy stems from the organisation’s conscious effort to avoid fuelling a dependency culture.


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 forthcoming work. The future of open design organisations like Uji largely relies upon achieving sustainable business models to allow for continual research and development, while freely sharing their work. Such business models tend to seek income from sources other than product sales; in the case of Uji, this revenue comes from the sponsorship of documentaries that expose their design process and beautifully capture the reality of their users’ lives.

Uji is now in the last few days of running a campaign to raise funds for manufacturing a batch of SafariSeats in Kenya; if you would like to watch a short preview of the SafariSeat story, or to support their campaign, head over to and search for ‘SafariSeat’.

To find out more about Uji and their past projects, visit


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 never to 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, which has 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 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.


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