MyHub is a solar powered device designed to appeal to the interests of users. With colourful lighting, a speaker, a battery pack, and USB ports – all interchangeable and easily reparable components – the device extends beyond the typical solar lighting product to offer a range of options.

MyHub was designed by El Webster, an MA Product Design student at the Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh, in partnership with the staff of Gearbox, a makerspace supporting creative and local manufacturing in Nairobi, Kenya. The following is the story of her experience with the Circular Solar project.

From the outset of the project, El took a keen interest in the aesthetics of solar lighting. Looking at the products currently on the market, she found that the quality of the light seemed to emphasize functionality significantly more than beauty. What if lights could be different colours? Why didn’t any of them offer shades to cast the light more softly? What if shades could be available in different patterns or if customers could even design the pattern of their own shades?

Thinking about this led El to look at how people’s preferences are or are not reflected in available solar products. Before traveling to Kenya, El researched the role of light in Kenyan culture and how she could represent the needs and interests of users in her design. From the design brief, she also chose to look at the potential for modularity, in addition to considering the core questions of sustainability and reparability.

The visits to various organizations in Kenya that distribute and sell solar lights and the conversations with staff at Gearbox were very insightful for El. She quickly sensed that people wanted more than just light – that light had essentially become an expectation, with wants and desires focused more around other uses of power such as TVs, fans, phone chargers and music. She also observed the contrast between the aesthetics of the solar lights and the designs of popular items on the market, including electric lights and fabric patterns. What would people really want in their homes? she asked herself. How could a light represent the vibrancy and pride of Kenyan culture as well as the desire to be modern and progressive – and fit within a circular economy?

Returning to the workshop at Gearbox for the next two days, El immersed herself in developing a prototype that would include a recognisable image of Kenyan culture, the repetition in patterns that she had observed in fabrics, an emphasis on home use, and a flexible system that could be upgraded as well as personalized to embed a sense of ownership and create a relationship with the product. Working on various aspects of the model and continually seeking feedback from the project coordinators, her academic supervisor, the staff at Gearbox and other people working in the solar light industry in Kenya, El created a version of a potential future product for the final presentations in Nairobi. It featured modular components that could be purchased individually and added or changed piece by piece, including colour-changing lights and a speaker, as well as USB ports for charging or powering other devices. All the parts could be easily disassembled with basic tools and the electrical components could be repaired or replaced.

Inspired by the process of designing a product in the location where it would be used and in collaboration with potential future users, El decided to continue developing the prototype through communication with the staff at Gearbox after returning to Edinburgh. Over the subsequent weeks, she refined the product and succeeded in sharing the specifications with Gearbox so that they could also produce a prototype in Kenya.

Over the course of the project, El found that her ideas changed significantly. Some things didn’t work out as she imagined. She would have preferred not to use plastic in the final product but couldn’t identify another appropriate material that also met the other specifications of her design. However, she felt that she was able to put users’ wants and desires at the centre of her product – and she named it ‘MyHub’ to reflect that. Moving past the concept of ‘designing for the poor’ as a task in practicality, she focused on designing for the whole person – a person who has needs but also wishes, hopes and aspirations.

The relationships that she formed with the Gearbox staff and spending time on the ground in Kenya were a key part of the experience for El. “We’re thousands of miles apart, but we’ve created the same thing,” she said. “The experience…I don’t know if you can put a value on it. The connections made pushed the design forward to a point where it could be made properly. This is the first thing I’ve done that could be a proper product.

“I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity here – it would have looked like a square box. You have to be there. You have to experience the people as well as the place.”