...and your name is Phil among friends; a small and humble name that however small and humble it may be, will never be anonymous nor go unnoticed. I believe once again you made your small, humble yet distinct marks within this new project and context, proud of you!


My name is Philémonne in my home country The Netherlands, ‘Obruni’ in Ghana and Akosua in Abetifi. I am a 22-year-old Master Graduate of Industrial Design at the Eindhoven University of Technology. I believe that many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the earth. By designing with- and for specific contexts, I aim to provide tools for people to create impact in their own locality, combining their own strengths and ingenuity.


The intention of my designs is to contribute to a harmonious society. To me, the pillars on which a harmonious society is built are (in short): equality, feeling of belonging, freedom, respect and confidence. I believe that these pillars are formed by human relationships. And I believe that the structure of human relationships is shaped by the tools that people have. Think for example about how much communication has changed by new opportunities created by technological developments such as smart phones.


My vision has come to life in the many different projects that I have had the opportunity to undertake during my studies. When it was time to graduate, I went to do something that I had always wanted to do, but never felt ready for. I went to Africa, to Ghana, to co-design for new ways of education for- and with a local community.


Over the years, I have gained sensitivity in finding ways to engage people in a co-design process or triggering their input. In the case of my graduation project, I had to come up with triggers that would work in an African culture, one that I hardly knew anything about.


I realised that I could not start up this project from scratch so I partnered up with a Ghanaian NGO: the AMO Programme and their Dutch counterpart Stichting ABaCus. AMO stands for ‘Agodi Ma Osuahu’ meaning ‘Playing Gives Experience’. The AMO Programme is located in Abetifi, a small town in South-West Ghana. They develop wooden Teaching Learning Materials (TLM’s) in a small workshop with local materials and -craftsmen. They have been providing Ghanaian primary schools with quality TLM’s since 1995.


Teaming up with a local organisation enabled me to become more embedded in the context faster, by using their network and social connections in the community.


Having never been to Africa before, I tried to prepare myself by reading literature and talking to experienced experts. Then I went to Abetifi for 3 weeks, to get to know the culture, the people, their environment and the opportunities for co-design. PHOTO | mars for independence day


As I was unfamiliar with the culture I asked a lot of questions to the Ghanaians. I presented myself vulnerably, to which they always replied with elaborate explanations to my questions! In this way I got to know the culture and the ways of reasoning of local people.


I shadowed different stakeholders relevant to the context of education in Abetifi: First, I visited schools and gave a short lesson as teacher or spent the whole day on the wooden benches in class with the other pupils…


I found that primary education was: - teacher centred - strongly hierarchical - about learning what to think rather than how to think - instruction-based and never self-directed or initiated by pupils

…I worked in the AMO workshop as part of the team of carpenters…

…I visited mothers in their houses…

… and I shared thoughts with Teacher-Training University lecturers after attending their classes.
Haha these drawings! So characteristic, very clear, simple, creative and effective!


From all these experiences I gathered insight into many perspectives on the situation of primary education in Abetifi. I generated ideas for new TLM’s in my sketchbook and discussed them with teachers and the carpenter team at AMO, and we chose 2 ideas to realise straight away!


A trigger for co-design was to leave my sketchbook lying around. Locals would pick it up and browse through it. This became a mechanism for spontaneous feedback moments. Instead of me asking ‘what do you think of this idea?’ it was opposite: a Ghanaian would approach me and insist that I explained what I had drawn on a particular page in the sketchbook. During my second visit, I hung up my sketches in the AMO workshop, with so that the carpenters could comment or add to them. Based on these shared sketches, as open platform for discussion and ideas, we co-designed furniture and outdoor TLM’s for the Discover Area.


Next to working with the carpenters, I also collaborated with a local electrician and a seamstress. By collaborating with local craftsmen I found out about local skills and manufacturing practice. I learnt that craftsmanship is not appreciated in Ghana and craftsmen are generally looked down upon. “When people see me at work though, they see what I can do and then sometimes it changes. When they know what it entails they actually think my skills are quite impressive.” (Joy, AMO carpenter)


The two TLM’s were evaluated in the classrooms of primary- and junior high schools, with teachers and pupils aged 8-14. Analysing the evaluation I can conclude that:
  • experiential learning can only take place when the teacher gives the children time and space to explore
  • teachers wanted to help (give directions) too much, because they feel it is their task to instil knowledge in the children
  • children were hesitant to start because they were waiting for an assignment, not being used to exploring on their own
  • children worked in teams of 4 and were patient with each other and helped each other by giving directions
  • there was initial lack of self-esteem to ‘just try things’; children needed encouragement
  • All children managed to complete the TLM games and were very proud and a bit surprised
A very smart way to involve them in this new way, but how do you open their mindsets to it? You're asking quite a change of minds in these people, very brave to take on this challenge I think!


From the evaluation I realised that no matter how well-thought-out a designed TLM is, how many layers of use are designed into it, its value is completely dependent of the teacher’s implementation of it in class. Before the TLM’s can add value in classrooms, teachers should feel the necessity to adapt new education methods. As designer, I can ignite that feeling by letting teachers, pupils and parents experience experiential learning, so that they can convince themselves of its value- and decide how to act upon their new insights. To facilitate a place where the community in Abetifi get in touch with this experience, became my ambition.


Back in the Netherlands, I developed an idea for a platform for situated learning in a community of practice: it would be an open outdoor workshop space where not only children but also parents, teachers, (unemployed) youth, students and craftsmen can come to learn new things or share their skills in exploratory workshop activities facilitated for- and by community members. After explaining this concept in a Skype call with my Ghanaian colleagues, we named it the Discover Area.


With this idea and a backpack loaded with triggering design tools that I had prepared I returned to Abetifi, this time for 2 months. Again I visited the stakeholders and told them about my idea, using the network that I had built up during my previous visit.


The project started from the opportunities that I saw, but not from a local question or incentive. In hindsight I think it is best that, when a foreigner contributes to a project in an African country, the project is based on a local question. This should raise the motivation, engagement of the locals and the project’s relevance in their daily lives. On the other hand, many great projects that were initiated by a foreigner are still running in Ghanaian hands years after- and if they would never have been initiated ‘from outside’ perhaps nothing would have happened…

I played into our already established connection by bringing them a gift package consisting of a photo of them with a Dutch cookie.

I approached all stakeholders individually and looked how my idea and the insights from my previous visit resonated with their own experiences. In this way I could speak to their personal motivations for participating with the establishment of the Discover Area platform. We also directly discussed what they could contribute from their own interests, expertise, background or professional position.
Marjan Hendriks
Nice overview!

To my delight, our conversations were quite fruitful and I found like-minded people to collaborate with! Then I invited them to discuss the concept further in a group meeting together with the other stakeholders.


A special stakeholder was the Minister, representing the local Presbyterian Church. It was soon clear that in order to move quickly, we needed full support from the Church. In official Church arrangements, we managed to arrange a pilot-test location for the Discover Area, as well as a permanent land for the future of the project.


In Ghana 65% of people are Christians, 25% are Muslim (concentrated in the North) and others carry traditional tribe beliefs. Religion has a large impact on daily life in Ghana; you find biblical texts in daily speech, in shop names, and on taxi windows. The spirit of learning right from wrong from a book, or bible verses being explained by the minister is recognisable in upbringing and education as well: independent critical thinking is restrained. As I made an effort to adapt to Ghanaian culture I also went to Church, and, though the 3,5 hour service was in Twi, it did help me to understand ‘the Ghanaian ways’ better.


Then I brought all stakeholders together in the kick-off meeting for the Discover Area. I tried to facilitate a sharing of viewpoints between those present, but there was great hesitation to express personal opinions or thoughts. We looked at some of the workshop examples that I brought, and by referring to the individual stakeholder meetings we decided that the first workshop would be about weaving. All teachers would bring a number of their students to participate. Moreover, the teachers would select some students as facilitators of the workshop, as they recognised that some children were true experts in the field of weaving.


During the group meeting, the general attitude was extremely passive, which was a shock to me as all attendees spoke passionately in our individual meetings. During my time in Ghana I learnt that the collectivistic and hierarchical culture makes it risky to express ones personal thought in a group; what if you are the only one who thinks this way? This cultural foundation also made it difficult for me to grasp the motivations for people to be part of the project. Was it peer pressure, the risk of missing out, the honour of being part of an ‘Obruni-project’, or the chance of funds coming through the project for a better name for their school?


The weaving workshop was a great success. About 50 participants, students from ABETICO university and pupils from local Junior High- and primary schools, joined the workshop, which was facilitated by six children of 8-12 years old.


It was interesting that some teachers brought way too many students and that in the end, we had a workshop with 5 different crafts instead of the agreed 3 types of weaving. It showed the enthusiasm of both teachers and students for the new Discover Area, but the number of people was barely manageable! The whole workshop was facilitated by children, which was a great accomplishment in itself. A university lecturer took the task of co-ordinating the workshop by dividing the participants in groups and rotating them amongst the different facilitators.


Meanwhile, with the carpenters of AMO, I was co-designing wooden items to furniture the Discover Area.


In the next week the stakeholders and I came together for an evaluation of the weaving workshop. We formed a committee of teachers who were going to be the Discover Area executives and who would carry the project further when I returned to the Netherlands. My plan was to arrange the next workshops but I found out that all schools had an examination period, starting next week. The teachers explained that the examinations lasted 3weeks followed by the 3 week Easter break, and that both students and teachers would be under too much pressure to participate in Discover Area activities.


Generally seen, most setbacks in Ghana are taken lightly by the people. They have a natural ability not to worry too much. But sometimes, a problem is presented as an unsolvable situation, when there actually is a an acceptable alternative readily available- it is just not exactly that what you asked for. Also in a shop you may ask for a certain product and they will not have it. Large chance that you have to think of an alternative yourself, instead of the salesperson offering you one- because you had asked for a specific product, and that one is not available, so it ends there.


As I only had 4 weeks remaining in Ghana it was time to drastically change my approach. I developed two types of workshops: facilitated workshops and open-play workshops. The latter is a time where children can come to play with the outdoor TLM’s and create whatever they wish from the scrap material collection of the Discover Area, using the skills they obtained from facilitated workshops.


With this change I majorly compromised my approach, which was based on open, honest and equal collaboration. It was only now that I realised that my approach is very much based on my own cultural background. My approach indirectly assumes that, deep down, everyone prefers equal, horizontal relations- but I learnt that some people prefer to remain in a low-power position and maintain hierarchical structure because they feel comfortable in their position. With my approach, I tried to get them out of their roles and that made some people so uncomfortable that it worked averse; instead of open input there was no input at all. Therefore: my approach had to be adjusted.


I had to change the collaboration-focused process from horizontal collaboration to vertical collaboration, matching the cultural context. I had to play into the hierarchy that is already embedded in the context. This hierarchy subscribes that I would have a powerful role, as Obruni, but that was exactly opposite of my intentions of empowering locals and triggering ownership from their side.


It was a challenge to respectfully adapt to the societal and cultural circumstances whilst maintaining my perspective as designer. I realised that respecting the culture is also somehow accepting the current ways of doing.


I noticed that as long as I was present, people expected directions from me. My attempts to trigger their own initiative were met with no response. To work around this, I decided to let a Ghanaian take over my role on the foreground; so that I could fade into the background. I knew exactly who this Ghanaian should be: our committee member and teacher Afful, a highly respected and known community member who is active in Church, youth groups and committees.

Interestingly, Afful had felt his new role coming, as his colleagues hinted him that he should become the leader of the project after my retreat. Continuing the new approach, I met with Afful to ‘train’ him to become my successor. We used the Discover Area Toolkit that I had designed, full of brainstorm methods to stimulate constructive debate on the evolution of the Discover Area. This meeting with Afful was a preparation for the final committee meeting. Our discussion gives Afful a solid background to take the lead in the next meeting- instead of me.


As announced, the teachers were fully occupied with the exams, so the workshops continued after school time, mostly as open-play workshops. The workshop facilitation consisted mainly of peer-teaching, but I also arranged some resource persons to facilitate workshops, such as…

bags from water sachets

…a recent university graduate and her supervisor, who came to give a workshop about recycling plastic for fashion..


…six teacher-training students, who came to facilitate a workshop about calabash art whilst practise their teaching skills…

Every day, for two weeks, there was an after-school workshop in the Discover Area. And every day children came and with each day, they became more curious to what we could discover in today’s workshop.


...growing plants in plastic bottles hung from a tree, test different soil and different seeds...


...building a truck from raffia
and learning about how it works mechanically...


...creating a necklace from self-made beads using rolled paper...


...weaving rings and purses with plastic waste & food wrappers...


...using waste plastic bottles to create a flow for sand...


...assembling a xylophone from a sketch, and discovering the principle of frequency...


...using toothpicks, sticks, small stones and paper rolls to create a 'the sound of rain'...


It was beautiful to witness a glimpse of confidence when children could share their own skills with their peers, or help each other. They were proud of their results and we exhibited them in the Discover Area display, for everyone to see.


Before the end of the pilot phase of the Discover Area, the committee and I had a last gathering to discuss the future of the Discover Area. Using a business brainstorm method, we looked at the goals of the DA, what activities we should undertake and which resources and stakeholders we will need in order to achieve them. I had prepared this method already with Afful, my Ghanaian successor, so he chaired this part of the meeting. In this way he gradually moved into his leadership position.


Having learnt from previous group meetings, I made sure that Afful and I had already gone through the steps of the brainstorm method together, meaning that he already had some input for the committee meeting. It was also noticeable that he gladly used the notes we made earlier, because it gave his suggestions a seemingly formal background.


With Afful’s role explicitly defined, I explained that I myself would remain involved from the Netherlands and that external funding is only possible with preceding Ghanaian commitment. Afful and I had already found a local sponsorship partner in the YPG (Youth Presbyterian Guild) group of the church, and during the meeting the committee members added other ideas for local stakeholders and sponsorships.


Money is always a tricky topic of conversation. In Ghana, giving money is a way to show one’s appreciation, whilst I feel that it detracts from my integrity. In this project it was a challenge to communicate my position as student-designer, risking my graduation and investing my time, energy, creativity and ingenuity- not so much my money. Expectations on how easy to receive foreign money are unrealistic and I noticed that locals would prefer to rely on external funding than look for local funds or smart sponsorship constructions.


Before the Easter break, and before I left Ghana, I organised a celebratory closing event for the Discover Area. I went to the schools to invite the children and their teachers, as well as the stakeholders and the committee. We had one last workshop activity, which was decorating the Discover Area with balloons, paper craft and neatly coloured mandalas. The president of the YPG, our newly connected sponsorship, also came to witness the activities.


It is very popular in Ghana to wear polo-shirts from an organisation or a group to show that you belong to them. Playing into this phenomenon, I designed Discover Area T-shirts for the committee to carry out their membership. The committee with Afful as leader was officially announced to the audience and thanked for their contribution.
Hi, this is a great way to explore you graduation project - well done! Best, Ron


I handed over the Discover Area Toolkit (full of brainstorm methods, organisational support cards and workshop examples and templates) to Afful so that he has a support
 for future meeting and organisational matters. It is something to fall back on, as it is never easy to pull a project or a group on your own.


All children and resource persons who facilitated a workshop came forward and explained what they had shared in the Discover Area. After a Ghanaian ‘clap for them’ they received a personal signed certificate, to show our appreciation of their efforts. Earlier, the committee had suggested to reward the children who facilitated a workshop with money. I was reluctant to do so, because to me it felt a bit like bribing. Everyone assured me though, that in Ghana there are no objections to rewarding a child with money. I was almost going to it when I realised that I had already prepared Certificates of Appreciation for contributors to the project! When I told the committee about my initial idea of handing out certificates to the children, the committee was convinced that this was actually a better way to reward them.


Then it was finally time to cut the huge, specially made, Discover Area cake! Afful wanted me to cut it, while I wanted him to cut it; so we decided to cut the cake with the hands of all the committee members!

So, just before Easter I have left the Discover Area, its furniture, its tools, its scrap materials and Afful’s leadership toolbox in Abetifi. It is in their hands now, and I put the workshop announcement sign on blank.
Marjan Hendriks
Nice overview!


Kwaku, AMO’s manager, and the church’s senior executive are looking over the piece of land that, by making arrangements with the Church, we have already obtained as the permanent location of the Discover Area. It is on the roadside (a very positive thing in Ghana!) in a central position in town. If the local committee continues the project, we will collaborate in acquiring local sponsorships and external funds to cover the start-up costs of erecting a Discover Area Canopy on the land.