An Interview with Aika Matemu, Partner at Dalberg Design

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. The best ideas often come from the simplest solutions. We need to shift from designing solutions we think will work for communities to co-creating solutions with and for communities.”

Aika is a Partner at Dalberg Design in Nairobi, leading the design team across Africa. Grounded in human-centered design principles, Aika’s 15-year career has focused on designing digital technologies that enable marginalized populations to access high-quality healthcare. Her expertise in user experience design, digital technologies, global public health, and social entrepreneurism has positioned her as a leader in developing technologies that address critical social challenges.  

In this interview with Aika, we delve into her approach to community-centered design and its impact on creating accessible technologies for underserved populations.  

You have successfully grown the Dalberg Design team in Africa. What key strategies did you employ to manage and inspire this expansion? 

One of the most rewarding parts of my job at Dalberg Design is growing and nurturing talent! We use human-centered design (HCD) methods, which have really taken off in Africa, especially during the region’s digital transformation. However, despite the growing design community, formal HCD training options are still pretty limited here. That’s why on-the-job training, coaching, and mentorship are so crucial to keeping our design community vibrant. 

In our Nairobi and Dakar studios, we’re proud to have a majority of staff from Africa. This is a deliberate choice to hire local talent who can speak the local languages and connect deeply with the communities we work with. Plus, Dalberg Design co-founded the Pan-African Design Community of Practice, giving aspiring designers a chance to network with industry pros and access resources to sharpen their skills. 

To keep the learning going, we’ve built a strong internal training school that offers a variety of courses tailored to individual growth and specializations. Beyond these resources, I’m passionate about creating an environment that encourages creative freedom and expression. Teams thrive when they feel supported, guided, and when they work in safe, inspiring spaces. 

Can you share how community-centered design has shaped your approach to creating impactful solutions for underserved populations? 

Community-centered design (CCD) builds on HCD by being more in tune with the environments where design takes place. In practice, this means tweaking our design methods to be more sensitive and respectful towards the communities we work with and handling the power dynamics between designers and community members. 

In the past, interactions between design researchers and communities have sometimes felt one-sided, with communities feeling like their input was taken without them having a say in the decision-making or design process. CCD aims to fix this by being more inclusive, treating communities as co-designers or experts, and following community engagement principles that ensure our research practices are respectful and ethical, minimizing any potential harm. 

By involving communities directly in our research teams, we create fairer processes and solutions that communities feel ownership of and support. This shift not only makes our approach fairer but also ensures the solutions we develop are more relevant and sustainable, as they are based on the real needs and insights of the community members themselves. 

How do you measure the success and impact of the design frameworks and solutions you develop and implement, particularly those aimed at improving access to resources for underserved communities?  

Design frameworks can look different depending on the problem we’re trying to solve. They come from the data we gather during design research and help pinpoint where the best opportunities for solutions are. For instance, user personas represent different segments of a community and help organizations create targeted interventions. This kind of segmentation is popular with organizations aiming to understand population-level behaviors and trends. 

In a project called the Human Account, we used our skills in strategic advisory, HCD, and quantitative surveys to create a customer segmentation model for financial inclusion. We based this model on in-depth behavioral analysis in six countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Myanmar, Pakistan, and India. By working closely with financial service providers in these markets, we applied this segmentation to help them understand the needs and behaviors of underserved populations better. We also used participatory design techniques to test and refine value propositions, benefit statements, and opportunities for product and service innovations to reach key segments of the un/underbanked. 

As someone who has built and led diverse design teams, what qualities do you look for when selecting team members, and how do you foster innovation among them? 

When I think about growing our team, I always start by looking at my own leadership style and the kind of culture I want to build. I believe that if I’m not consistently showing the values I want my team to follow, it’s much harder for them to do the same. Setting a strong leadership example is key to laying a solid foundation for our organization. Without clear norms and values that support team growth, organizations often face high turnover and unhappy staff. Effective team building can only happen when we have these supportive structures in place. 

When we’re hiring, we look for people who are passionate about making a difference and have a knack for creativity. Since we work closely with communities, it’s crucial for our team members to be empathetic and humble, and to have the ability to come up with new ideas in challenging situations. By encouraging these qualities, we create a supportive and dynamic culture that helps everyone succeed, individually and as a team. 

What drives your passion for social entrepreneurship, and how has this influenced your career path? 

In my journey, I’ve learned that addressing the complex problems we face today requires new approaches to problem-solving. Social enterprises play a crucial role by fostering innovative solutions that are deeply rooted in understanding community needs. 

For example, when we’re trying to improve access to contraception for young women in informal settlements, we have to consider the historical roles of women in the community and the myths and misconceptions that influence them. Moving towards localization is key to ensuring that the next generation embraces these new ways of thinking. 

While starting from the grassroots can help us design inclusive solutions, it’s also important to step back and map out the broader systems we’re dealing with. This helps us see the connections between different levels of these systems and ensures our solutions are comprehensive. 

Looking ahead, what emerging trends in community-centered design do you see as most promising for addressing global health disparities? 

The global health landscape is increasingly focusing on local solutions, but there are still big gaps in funding and resources for community-level initiatives. Africa, with about 16% of the world’s population and 23% of the global disease burden, historically gets a small fraction of global health funding. For instance, in 2021, Africa accounted for less than 1.4% of total global health expenditures. This huge gap shows the urgent need for fairer resource distribution. Even within this limited funding, only a tiny bit goes to community health initiatives, making it harder for local health programs to address public health problems effectively. 

But there are promising opportunities, especially with the move towards universal health coverage and stronger partnerships between public and private sectors. We anticipate more integration between community health initiatives and the broader health system. Public health systems are adopting universal health structures and recognizing the vital role of community health workers in improving outcomes for underserved populations. There’s also growing awareness of the need to engage communities in addressing climate-related diseases. I believe that efforts to get community voices heard are making a real difference. While progress in closing health disparities for underserved communities may be gradual, there is significant potential for change. This is evident in the work of organizations like AMREF, Jacaranda Health, Medic Mobile, Partners in Health, Penda Health, and Access Afya, which are actively pushing this narrative forward and demonstrate the effectiveness of community-led approaches. 

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