An afternoon with Mike Beeston
Last month, Fjord’s London studio had a visit from an old friend. Mike Beeston, one of our founders, called in at our monthly company meeting to tell us about the journey that he has been on since leaving Fjord two years ago. This journey has taken him far away from the world of digital design – to a complex and extraordinary place.
Mike’s first encounter with the Democratic Republic of Congo happened by chance, after he won a trip in a charity auction back in 2013. But this voyage became the first of many, and Mike and his wife Kelley now spend much of their time and energy living in the country’s eastern region surrounding lake Kivu, where they establish and manage a range of social enterprise projects.
Mike began with an eye-opening introduction to the tragic circumstances of the Congo itself. Due to military conflict and political instability, the country’s infrastructure has crumbled since Belgian colonial rule came to an end in 1960. The size of Western Europe, the DRC has just 2000km of road (less than London alone), and the eastern region is so poorly connected to the rest of the country that getting there by land is practically impossible. Most of the people living here are without electricity and running water, and – in the few places where they are available – mobile coverage and internet access are prohibitively expensive. Extreme poverty is the norm, and, by any standard of measurement, living conditions are among the worst on the planet.
Paradoxically, the DRC has extraordinary mineral wealth. Congolese mines supply 80% of the world’s coltan – a vital ingredient in all semiconductors – and the country is a leading producer of many other precious substances, including copper, gold, diamonds, and cobalt ore. But these resources have become a focal point for warfare, corruption and unconstructive foreign involvement, and many see them as more of a curse than a blessing.
But Mike also painted a very different picture of life in the DRC. Peaceful islands on inland lakes where isolated communities trade, work, play and diligently tend to their neighbourhoods and small local businesses. It’s this picture which Mike and Kelley want to highlight – that there are many beautiful and harmonious areas in the country, with a proud people ready to make a difference.
It is within this conflicted yet hopeful environment that Mike and Kelley started Luminosity, a project designed to encourage investment in start-up businesses. Mike presented a remarkably wide-ranging set of projects through which Luminosity has been striving to lift up struggling communities in the eastern DRC: a pharmacy that has, for the first time ever, blessed a village with reliable medical supplies; solar lamps to assist teachers with their work; an internet café that has become a leading hub for local business in the region’s capital; and pioneering shipments of Congolese coffee to Western markets. In each instance, we were amazed at the resourcefulness with which they had identified the enablers of production and sought them out.
Minus one to zero
But in spite of these successes, Mike’s message was not entirely optimistic. With on-going political and military turmoil in the region, the future of these communities feels as precarious as ever – and with its unstable operating environment and almost total lack of infrastructure, the country seems unlikely to attract the kind of foreign investment that is shifting the fortunes of many of its African neighbours. Sadly, many potential investors see the DRC as a basket case, and are holding back until they see the nation collectively drag itself towards a more stable situation.
And so Fjord have asked Mike – how can we help? And it’s an exciting question. On reflection, the circumstances in the eastern DRC can be seen as a colossal design problem. How could we envision new ways to piece together the limited resources at these communities’ disposal? What would it take to reach the ‘critical mass’ of growth and prosperity that is needed to attract foreign investment? Organisations such as OpenIDEO have shown that global networks of design thinkers can generate solutions that can help turn the tide in even the most difficult and constrained of human situations. And it’s in the developing world where some of the most inventive, adaptable and ingenious technology solutions have been witnessed in recent years – SMS powered peer-to-peer lending via bitcoin; medical containers designed to fit in-between Coke bottles thus maximising logistical space; and baby incubators designed and built from car parts ensuring components necessary for maintenance are easily accessible.
Mike showed how these communities are continuing undefeated by the apparent lack of care from the outside world, and investing in each other against the odds. In lieu of physical equity, borrowing can be secured against a powerful motivator – the stigma of disapproval from local elders, should debt go unpaid. Could Fjord help to design and scale up a local network to facilitate and guarantee social investment? More generally, could the Fjord network become a hive mind for finding solutions to the problems facing the eastern DRC, and a long-term partner in its journey towards stability?
Well, we are going to try. The next step for us is to run one of our Fjord Rumbles – generating hundreds of ideas, testing them with Luminosity and people on the ground, before shortlisting a few core concepts we can develop. We can’t wait to tackle the challenge – one with deep meaning for all of us.