It’s the first of its kind in South Africa and a partnership that may change the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people across the continent. Leveraging research, scientific knowledge and skills through innovation, the British Council’s Africa Knowledge Transfer Partnership (AKTP) sees CPUT’s Department of Industrial Design working in tandem with Shonaquip, a local company that specialises in making custom-built wheelchairs and other devices for people with disabilities.
Under the AKTP scheme, high-calibre Industrial Design graduate Guillaume du Toit has been recruited by the British Council to work with Shonaquip, under the supervision of Industrial Design’s Dr Mugendi M’Rithaa. The agreement allows for Du Toit to gain business-based experience in the company, leading to personal development. CPUT is able to enhance the relevance of their training and research for business purposes, while Shonaquip reaps the benefits of new knowledge, expertise and technology for future wealth creation.
But there’s a legion of potential winners too – the half-a-million wheelchair users in South Africa, and millions more on the continent, the vast majority of whom live in areas geographically distinct from the urban environments of Europe or the United States.
Shonaquip was founded in 1992 by Shona McDonald after her own daughter was born so disabled she couldn’t sit up in an ordinary chair. McDonald explains that in those days in South Africa, the only chairs available were small, medium and large folding hospital chairs, totally unsuitable for her daughter’s condition.
“I began making equipment for my daughter and here the demand for uniquely designed custom-made products began. With a workforce of 33, our manufacturing unit now produces wheelchairs and other aids for the disabled. To improve on our products and specifically to help them suit various particular disabilities, Shonaquip joined AKTP as one of first participating businesses in the programme, realising that this could add huge value to the company in terms of innovation.”
McDonald goes on to slate the cheaply-produced wheelchairs that are distributed in Africa by donor organizations like cookies at a party – and explains that given the needs of a disabled child, these generic, completely unsuitable chairs are doing untold harm and completely disempowering disabled kids. “With the wrong seating devices, their bodies only become more disabled, with further complication of the spine and limbs. All kids who need wheelchairs will develop secondary health complications if not properly supported,” says McDonald. “If they were given what they need from the beginning, they would not have such profoundly disabled bodies.”
Another huge consideration is that the US or European context where these chairs are produced is foreign to Africa, where there are relatively few pavements or flat areas. A disabled African child is more likely to have to contend with unpaved roads, rolling hills, and very challenging geographical constraints.
And this is where the genius of linking to CPUT’s Department of Industrial Design comes in. McDonald is enthused about the partnership and says of Dr M’Rithaa,
“We share a great passion for universal design, solving disability problems, and looking at a more inclusive society. We believe our partnership will add value as we understand developing countries needs compared to the influences of European wheelchair design.”
Dr M’Rithaa agrees entirely, and says the Industrial Design Department is privileged and honoured to be involved. “This represents an opportunity for CPUT to test their theories in terms of universal design for disability and to get a real-life project to work on for the benefit of students and lecturers.”
“Not only is it an historic initiative in terms of the British Council’s involvement in South Africa, but it is unique on the continent among the Councils’ sponsored projects. We are the only ones focusing on disability through a link between a teaching and research institution like CPUT and a business like Shonaquip, which is driven by a social-enterprise model. This is all about empowering people and making lives better through design. We’re therefore very excited and committed to this unique and prestigious collaboration.”
By Jan Weyntrob, CPUT journalist