Can a young architect’s innovative design change the way Africa’s markets work?
The first time Adamma Umeofiea took towards solutions to Africa’s most press-a prototype of her new V Stall design to a busy, open-air market in the Ajah area of Lagos, she nearly caused a riot. The prototype of the V Stall, an open-faced triangular kiosk that incorporates display shelving for goods, storage space and, most crucially, shade and seating for market vendors, was made of unfinished plywood with rough joints and a number of kinks that needed adjusting. But the response in the congested Lagos markets, where miniscule margins make vendors clamour for anything that confers even the slightest advantage, was something she had not anticipated.
“I had spoken to someone I wanted to use to test it and they were like, ‘Yeah sure. Of course. I don’t mind using this thing’,” she told me when I visited her small design studio in VGC, an upscale residential area a few kilometres east of downtown Lagos. “But as we were doing this, some random guy shows up and he’s like ‘You can’t just come here and do whatever you want with someone who has been here a while. I’ve been here longer and if you are not going to settle me, carry your thing and go’ That was how it actually turned into a crazy fight.”
Ada – as she requested I call her – whose first name Adamma means daughter of beauty in the Igbo language, projects a fiercely idealistic manner that masks her intensely practical way of seeing the world. The tension is apparent in almost every aspect of her life, from her path to architecture and design right up to the structures she creates and the materials used in their fabrication – including the newly conceptualised V Stall. At 23 years old, she is one of the youngest independent architects and designers working in Lagos. She is part of a growing class of young creatives and entrepreneurs who have chosen to side-step the established path of corporate engagement in favour of the belief that bold new ideas and hard work, coupled with a public possessing an increasingly sophisticated sense of globally aware but locally motivated style, will propel them towards solutions to Africa’s most pressing problems, in addition to recognition and financial success.
At five-feet-nine-inches tall, with a distinctive afro of large and untamed curls, Ada dresses in a thrift-store-chic style that is a deliberate challenge to the brand name, designer-choked dress code of present-day Lagos. She speaks with a Nigerian-tinged accent reflecting a global upbringing that included secondary school in Dubai and university in London, Los Angeles and Melbourne. The only daughter and the third of four children born to two Lagos-based entrepreneurs, Ada initially assumed she would become a civil engineer and then join her two older brothers at her father’s food processing business. “I just thought I would come out and become a civil engineer or whatever kind of engineer,” she said. “I wasn’t interested in the built form, I was interested in how things were made and how architecture was rooted in the earth, as this thing that is part of us and also 10 times more the scale.” But attending secondary school in Dubai during a period of the city’s expansion brought her face to face with both the marvels and perils of rapid infrastructural development without a cohesive philosophy. “I was interested in its effect, in its power, and not particularly the style because the styles were very mechanical. It was just high buildings and high rises and nothing really. There was no actual design sensibility. It was just more development that makes this city this pseudo-utopia essentially,” she said.
The summer before Ada started her studies in civil engineering at University College London, she took a short course in art and architecture. “I had a tutor there who was just convinced I was meant to do art and not civil engineering, but I was like it’s just too late,” she said. A few months later, at the beginning of her first year, she failed a chemistry, maths and physics assessment so decisively that her tutor advised her not to continue with the intended civil engineering course. “I was like, what am I going to do? I’ve already come here for this year. I remembered this tutor who had said to me that I was supposed to be doing this [art] instead. I emailed her and she then sent me this link to this other foundation programme instead in art and architecture. They’d already started so I wasn’t sure if I’d get in. I went with my weird five-page portfolio from the summer course and I got into that programme and started that instead.” She then spent the year at Central Saint Martens in London building a portfolio that won her a scholarship to study architecture at the topranked Southern California Institute of Architecture (Sci-Arc) in Los Angeles.
“Central Saint Martins was a paving-the-way thing. We were doing art. We were just exploring all kinds of creative mediums, whereas Sci-Arc was more direct and firm in intent than Central Saint Martens,” she said. “It is very process focused. I was taught to not just have an idea, I was taught to test it and break it if necessary, and push it, expand it. The whole idea was to cause you to rationalise and to defend. You have to own. It was basically a part of your being and essentially, if you are going to create an object or to create anything, you have to be able to understand every facet of it inside and out from every angle. My process is basically doing that, basically destroying this thing in a very productive way. If I’m designing an object I will actually figure out how much it can take, for example, before it breaks, or how much one can stretch it before it tears.”
While Ada found the lessons on process extremely important for her development, it was more difficult for her to connect to the design subject matter. By the end of her second year at Sci-Arc, she concluded that the context in which she was learning architecture and design did not fit with her vision of a world in which most people do not have the means to build costly experimental structures. “It’s Los Angeles, so the briefs are always for the high end. It was futuristic and very elitist, a very extravagant type of architecture which is great, obviously engaging you to think outside the box, but limiting your client pull to just these people that can afford it. I was kind of a bit sick of that in some way,” she said. “Honestly I can’t tell you the transition. It was gradual. It was more like, this can’t just be what architecture is about? I always knew I wanted to do more to bring architecture to Lagos, to this context, in a way that was unorthodox. I decided on a context and then I built upon it.” She originally intended to drop out of school entirely, but her parents immediately vetoed that decision. Instead, she took a gap year before completing her degree at Royal Melbourne University of Technology in Australia, during which she spent time conducting the initial informal case studies on Nigerian marketplace structures in an attempt to understand how to marry the desire to produce intensely beautiful creations with a need for practical and affordable structures relevant to different aspects of Nigerian life.
Ada’s studio, the OS Space (OS stands for Oscillation of Scales) currently operates from a converted single room in the staff quarters of her family home. It is a catch-all name for a year-old start-up that pursues projects in architecture, interior and graphic design and even branding. Sparely furnished with concrete floors, white walls, a worn, burgundy easy chair, her desk with its large iMac computer and a display table made of stacked beer crates holding up two large planks of polished wood, the space exhibits her inclination towards a minimalist functionality that prizes simple openness and affordability in a culture that often celebrates the power of money with gaudy ornamentation. Her dog Lana, a small white Samoyed who often occupies the sole chair in the office, is a constant companion. The proximity of work and living space means that Ada often designs at odd hours, sometimes traipsing from her bedroom to the studio in her pyjamas late at night and working until morning. “I find the work very transfixing and personal. Once I do something, I can’t stop until I’m content with the body of work I’ve created. Time doesn’t matter. Sleep doesn’t matter. Food doesn’t matter,” she said.
The V Stall prototype sits outside under a covered carport, alongside her older brother’s Nissan Maxima, her own 1997 Volkswagen Golf, and a motley collection of discarded household appliances. In its current iteration, the V Stall is an isosceles prism that stands on one of its triangular ends. The rectangular face features multiple compartments that can be modified to fit the vendor’s needs. Each stall comes with slanted shelves that can be used to better display fresh produce. The shelves are removable leaving an empty space in which mirrors may be installed for vendors who sell clothes and fabrics. The unit boasts multiple storage compartments for bags, money and debit card readers in addition to inbuilt seating for the weary trader. The testing prototype is currently made of plywood, but Ada intends to experiment with different lightweight and waterproof materials that will make the market stall both durable and portable.
The initial idea for creating movable market structures developed from Ada’s fascination with the intersection of architecture, class and spaces that seemingly exist outside of the traditional design realm. She began by creating portable folding chairs and tables for market vendors in specific trades. But, for a woman who does not see her created objects as separate from the physical, social and economic contexts in which they operate, the individual approach was unsatisfying. “After all the years of research and experimentation, I had this idea for market clusters, populating the market spaces with this systemised design that would manage the spaces,” she said. “I thought of a shape – and I guess that’s a triangle – and I think that with a triangle there’s obviously quite predictable ways of population. As a form, as an actual usable form it’s not really habitable in some way, because the angles don’t work, but I thought that would be the best object to me as a challenge to work with. The design just became this thing where it incorporates sitting and displaying, storage and then introducing a new element to these markets, this platform, to have an identity. You can name your stall, number your stall, own your stall. Then there was the advertising element to it as well to monetise in some way the foot traffic. The number of people that go to the markets every day is insane. And to think that nobody has actually thought to monetise that in some way as another element to subsidise the costs to benefit both parties involved in the trading.”
Open-air markets play an essential role in African life. They are both an economic necessity for populations that cannot afford the more western retail experience and a cultural phenomenon that has helped to shape ideas of community for centuries. According to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, 65 percent of Nigeria’s retail food sales occur in traditional, open-air markets. These spaces also sell and even fabricate almost every good demanded by Nigeria’s growing consumer economy. The markets are also complex physical, political and social structures that impact the surrounding city life. Major market days contribute to a profound increase in traffic on Lagos streets due to high volumes of motor vehicle and foot traffic. These areas often lack adequate systems for proper disposal of both liquid and solid waste. In Lagos, the yearly rent for a stalls can range from $1,250 to $4,000 (N250,000 to N800,000 ) depending on the size and location. For many vendors the cost of space can be prohibitive.
Ada’s V Stall seeks to address some of the challenges posed by the existing state of open-air markets. “The idea was that this design, this stall design, now the V stall, would accommodate for this sort of population in its design. It wouldn’t just be haphazard – find another one and pluck it somewhere – it would be very much intentional in the way it’s been designed and the way it’s being made,” she said. Both cost and ease of use are major considerations. While assembling the first prototype took her close to five hours, subsequent versions have become much easier to put together. She hopes that the stalls can be mass produced at a low cost with do-it-yourself assembly instructions easily accessible to a population with varying levels of literacy. The aim is for a user to go from the box to a functional V Stall in under an hour. While Ada is unwilling to release the unit cost of each stall at this stage, she says that it is priced to be very competitive with existing options. She is also exploring relationships with different institutions that might offer innovative financing solutions for vendors interested in using the stalls.
The V Stalls fall under an initiative that Ada developed during her gap year called, “WeBuilt Africa”, which aims to marry social enterprise and design sensibilities to solve pressing but uniquely African issues. Despite some tension with her parents, who she feels are interested in having her pursue a more traditional path, Ada’s ideas and work have been broadly lauded. We Built Africa and the V Stall concept have already won three major awards for entrepreneurship: the Anzisha Prize, an award for Africa’s youngest entrepreneurs, a 2012 Google Zietgiest Fellowship, and the 2012 Challenge Future Award. “Validation is always a beautiful thing. Especially because that was during the year off. That was initially in the middle of all the negativity I had not anticipated especially from my parents who just assumed that I was wasting my life,” Ada said. “The competitions and awards were great and the money is good as well because that definitely helped to propel a lot, because nobody was helping me out. It helped to pay for a lot of things that I needed to test with and build with.” Though Ada’s initial thought was just to create a new structure to make business a little bit more efficient for market vendors, her present goal is to have the V Stalls become the go-to structure for organising informal markets across the continent. “The whole idea was just to use the design and to ease the lives of people. But then adding to that, having it to promote or fuel the economy was not at all on the table. But I guess of course inevitably it is, because the whole idea was to increase revenue, to increase sales for the vendors. I guess that also contributed to the overall wealth generated in the markets,” she said.
Despite the initial excitement from vendors and prize judges, the V Stall has a way to go before it can truly take over the continent. If Ada’s new design is to achieve widespread adoption, she will have to figure out how to manage not only the design and fundraising for mass production but also the challenge of integrating a new concept into a market system governed by tradition and often opaque rules. For a young person armed only with an idea and the desire to positively impact the lives of her fellow countrymen she has already gone quite far. “I think it does actually have potential,” she said. “I thought about it I was like, it’s actually really true. Creating a different environment generally for where there’s advertising, and there’s numbers and there’s colour coding. There’s a certain level of structure to it as well that would in fact promote these other things to happen in this context. I don’t know what it would be like as a general experience where you’re walking by and it’s clean. I don’t know what the possibilities would be. In terms of economically, I think that would be quite powerful to see.”
Source: Ventures Africa