Solving Wildlife Conservation Challenges Through the Lens of Design Thinking

by Liz Mwangi

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the natural world. Most of my childhood is filled with extensive memories of being out in the fields, in tea plantations and the green lush life of central Kenya. Nature, and the environment in general, is something that I have always been passionate about. And while I never thought I would end up building a career in it, my interest and involvement in environment-related projects led me to where I am today.

Most recently, I’ve found myself working at the intersection of design thinking and conservation — a whole new world that has opened me up to seeing what more each of us can do to conserve the environment.

I first got introduced to the world of design thinking during my first year at African Leadership University in a module called Entrepreneurial Leadership. What sparked my curiosity most was the idea that design thinking is embedded in creatively solving problems through an iterative, non-linear process for specific users; it is human-centred.

So when the opportunity to join Design for Wildlife came about, there was no hesitation in applying. Coming into the team, I knew that there were a number of gaps in my knowledge I still needed to fill. However, what I did know from leaders in design thinking and conservation was that “the qualities of design thinking i.e. understanding the problem from a human perspective, exploring and testing a range of different solutions, and iterating repeatedly” go a long way to finding and building solutions that are both human-centred and long-term applicable.

If you’re familiar with design thinking, then the image below won’t be too new. If it’s new to you, it’s worth noting that design thinking is not a linear process as illustrated below. If anything, it requires you to embrace and realise that at ANY POINT throughout the process, you could get thrown back into previous stage(s), informed by the insights that come up along the way.

Credit: MAQE

Design thinking is embedded in creatively solving problems through an iterative process; it is human-centred.

I joined the team during the prototyping stage of a WildAid project. Prototyping, within design, is a stage that is characterised by repeated failure (and the need to fail fast!) to learn about one’s product/service, iterating until you arrive at a point where you are ready to deliver the product itself. Our product was a repellent that, when applied correctly on crops, could deter elephants from raiding a harvest. The task was to find a scalable business model that would allow farmers to protect their harvest at an affordable price, while ensuring the conservation of elephants.

April 2021 marked my first visit to Latoro, Uganda with my team, comprising designers from Design for Wildlife and wildlife conservationists from WildAid. Over the entire month, I spent time on the field with farmers testing out various business features (e.g. the product form, the pricing as well as the best selling channel) and transforming large amounts of qualitative data into quantitative insights for the team, allowing me to also have a grasp of the business and service design world.

Credit: WildAid

There’s only so much you can do and achieve alone; design provides us with tools to collaboratively find solutions that meet the people at the heart of it all.

As I had come to learn from my manager, Mariana Prieto (Founder, Design for Wildlife), through her extensive experience in the design world and conservation work, “too often, the human aspect is a tag on or an add on, in addition to conservationists trying to tackle human dynamics/interactions. The opportunity to apply design-thinking to solve an issue affecting many farmers across the Murchison Falls National Park region allowed us to ensure that each step of the way, we were building a business that was centred on the farmers as the users and co-creating with them. By the end of 4 weeks, we had not only built a model with deep considerations grounded in the cost of the product, its market value and pricing from an ethics point of view, but had also found the best channel through which we could distribute the product.

Having learnt so much from the field about the product and the individuals, it was time to really see how the business would function. We recently spent a week design sprinting what the venture would look like — a process that involved applying all the learnings we had gained from the initial design research stage, consolidating insights, and mapping out the necessary tools and resources that would be required to meet our sales goals. Going forward, our hope is to be able to scale the product across Uganda and other elephant-populated regions on the continent to mitigate human-elephant conflict.

This experience has taught me more than just what conservation looks like in a different African country; it has also helped me understand what it means to apply a design perspective to setting up a sustainable business. Instead of spending millions on solving conservation issues through a long-held, donor-led approach, it was exciting to see how, with just an initial investment amount, the returns could cut across both the human and elephant communities.

Credit: Retiti

Nature, in many ways, is not apart from us, but a part of us.

Conservation and climate change issues are not only found in the natural world, but are also deeply embedded within society and people. The uncertainty of the kind of world we could wake up to tomorrow climate-wise is the same uncertainty and ambiguity we face in the field of design, and the same uncertainty that deeply affects communities living in close proximity with wildlife.

It’s this that makes design such a key component for solving challenges centred on conservation, climate and the planet. There’s only so much you can do and achieve alone; design provides us with tools to collaboratively find solutions that meet the people at the heart of it all. It goes without saying that to realise a climate-just world, we all need to work together.

As I continue on my conservation-design career journey, I’m excited to apply my skills in design thinking to the roles I hold at The Rallying Cry and the International Union for Conservation of Nature — organisations that are both centred on realising a climate-just world and playing a part to make our relationship with nature as harmonious as can be.

Liz Mwangi currently works at The Rallying Cry and IUCN where she is using her skills in human centred design to bring a fresh approach to the world of conservation and climate action. She is also the co-founder of That Glow Factor, a platform for African college women that enables them to design, launch and build exciting careers.

The elephant repellent initiative she mentioned is funded by WildAid and the design elements were carried out in collaboration with Design for Wildlife. You can follow the continuation of this project via WildAid’s blog.

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