Kenyan artists and designers: Digital aspirations

Kenya, group exploration of digital technologies

Kenya: group exploration of digital technologies

Having recently spent an intense and rewarding time exploring the relationships between artists/designers and digital technologies in Nairobi, Jo Morrison was struck by the similarities between their experiences and those of students at Central Saint Martins.

“In February I was invited to Kenya by the British Council to work with an extraordinary group of 30 artists, designers and educators in order to investigate how digital technologies currently feature in their daily, learning and professional lives, and to explore how these technologies might do so in the future. Through a series of varied activities we developed a wealth of information and insights designed to inform and support creative entrepreneurship in Kenya.

As with CSM students, the ways in which artists and designers incorporate digital devices into their daily and learning lives vary significantly. For some artists, personal digital technologies are integral to their everyday, whilst others have limited involvement.


I use my feature phone to wake up. I check my emails between 9am-2pm – twice a week in a cyber. Once or twice a week I do an international call…I watch tv on Friday and Sunday.


By the time he is checking emails at 11am, my battery has died and I’m using my back-up phone. He is doing work without any gadgets…from 9am-6pm!

An artist shared their daily digital experience:

  • Wake up 6:30: alarm on phone
  • 06:30-07:30: facebook; gmail
  • 07:30-08:30: Radio France International ‘for learning’
  • 08:30: Calls and SMS Phone
  • 10:00: Update my social media pages / Desktop – load credit on modem
  • 14:00: Write new songs and record them on the phone
  • 17:00:  Watch music videos on tv – latest music
  • 19:00:  Check email on desktop
  • 20:00: Maybe use M-Pesa
  • 21:00: Listen to music on CD player
  • Sleep with phone in hand
  • 01:00: facebook, gmail

Familiar tools used as part of the group’s digital lives include: WhatsApp; Dropbox; facebook; twitter; email; online dictionaries; Google and YouTube. Some use their mobile devices to take photos on cameras, watch movies on laptops, write personal blog posts, update their own or their organisation’s website, and download movies or music for entertainment.



Reasons put forward by some for a reduced use of technologies included a lack of access, limited understanding of the opportunities technologies afford, concerns over privacy and security, as well as technologies perceived as having little relevance for a few individuals.

Access to digital technology: People’s access to digital technologies ranged from going to a cyber-cafe at specific times in the week, to owning several high-spec personal mobile devices. Those who could not gain immediate access to digital information created methods for retrieving information, such as calling friends to open an email and read it aloud over the phone. The M-Pesa banking system, which is easily accessed via mobile telephony, is a hugely popular and successful mode for managing finances throughout Kenya.

Accessory or extension: The mobile device was seen by some as a gadget akin to an accessory, whereas others perceived their mobile devices as an integral part of their personal and professional lives and having significant value and relevance. For instance one musician, for whom mobile devices are vital to her creative process, records work on her smartphone and shares the music with her musical network in order to gain quick critical feedback.

Anxiety:  A common concern was around privacy and security regarding ‘all things digital’. Who is doing what with whose data? Initially the discussion related to individuals’ personal data on social networks and websites, but quickly the discussions expanded to include themes such as plagiarism, identity theft and corporate use of personal data, and then on to topics such as online avatar violence, drone warfare, and the societal effects from online violence and pornography.

Competence: There was a desire by all those gathered to learn more about digital technologies, and to better understand how to engage fruitfully in order to build their creative profiles, practices and enterprises. Some felt that they did not have sufficient functional skills, others that they would benefit from deeper understanding of how e-commerce can benefit the creative industries, and many felt that greater digital literacy was essential for them to have a meaningful professional engagement with digital technologies.

Marketing and building business: Central to the workshops was the exploration of the ways in which artists and designers in Kenya can harness digital technologies to support and enhance their professional creative practice. As such, the choreographers, musicians, storytellers, graphic designers, exhibition designers, sound designers, visual artists, educators, events managers and dancers were all exceptionally keen to learn more about all aspects of online entrepreneurship. Marketing, fundraising, collaborating, communicating, selling and so forth, were themes that all of the creatives felt they needed to understand more – whatever their current engagement.


Nairobi workshop activity

Attitudes to digital technologies

As part of the workshops the group explored the positive and negative aspects to digital technologies from their own perspectives, as well as those they are presented with through the media, friends, family and so on. Just some of the areas are listed below, and illustrate the complex relationships that we all have with our digital world.

Positive aspects of digital technologies

  • Instant feedback
  • Multitasking – more opportunities to develop work
  • Unlimited data storage
  • Massive research playground
  • Networking and connecting
  • Collaboration – as practice, feedback to work in progress, event programming etc.
  • Mapping and monitoring health
  • Job opportunities – seeking and finding
  • Entertainment – anytime, anywhere
  • Secure transfer of money – M-Pesa
  • Cost-effective
  • E-commerce
  • E-learning
  • Publishing
  • Voting
  • Mapping
  • Online conferencing.

Negative aspects of digital technologies

  • Elite few know about and can readily access technology
  • Controlled by a few groups
  • Increased ‘addiction’ to digital media
  • Privacy and security issues
  • Crime such as hacking, identity theft, or device theft
  • War ‘played out’ online, e.g. cyberattacks of government systems
  • Spam and viruses attack computer systems
  • Expensive technology prevents access by many/ financial burden
  • Overload of information
  • Distortion of information
  • Confusion to the user
  • Misunderstandings and misconceptions
  • Loss of jobs due to technology
  • Plagiarism, IP, copyright issues and infringement
  • Contested position of ‘open’ design and systems as free and shared, whilst also controlled and controlling
  • Anti-social behaviour such as harassment and flaming
  • Violence and pornography published – what are the societal impacts?
Nairobi skyline

Nairobi skyline

Digital Aspirations

  • More people online to expand networks
  • Selling music online
  • More exposure to digital culture
  • Staying updated on the use of software
  • Reduce digital ignorance
  • Use digital technologies well for research
  • Be efficient through use of technology
  • Fundraising online
  • Finding and evaluating the appropriate platform for own work
  • Exploit the use of social media to promote self and work
  • Knowing how to attract people to personal blog
  • Developing digital brand
  • Marketing of self online
  • Undertaking online learning
  • How to get to the University of the Arts London!

Many of the themes that emerged chime with the aspirations that CSM students have with digital technologies, for example: the desire to create and manage different online identities; the practical skills involved with e-commerce including keeping abreast of emerging models; undertaking international collaborations facilitated by digital technologies; understanding digital IP and copyright relating to creative practice; and protecting safety and privacy online.

My experience in Nairobi was concentrated, powerful, illuminating and hugely enjoyable. It was great to be able to explore what digital literacy might mean for creative practitioners in East Africa, and to facilitate the gathering of rich research data to inform the further development of creative entrepreneurship in Kenya.”