Last week, digital payments platform Visa launched the Visa Innovation Studio which is housed at Merchant Square – Riverside Drive – Nairobi. This is the first innovation studio of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa and it will offer Visa partners opportunities to co-create future solutions for commerce. The studio which is testament of Visa’s commitment to Africa will serve the sub-Saharan Africa region and joins a network of innovation centers operated by Visa since 2016, in cities including Dubai, Singapore and San Francisco.
The African feel at the studio is evident right from the get-go and a tour of the facility cements this. The whole studio communicates a design concept that takes visitors on an African journey through vibrant colours, lighting, matatu graffiti, musical instruments, and bold patterned fabrics. The studio also features ceremonial baskets from Ghana and mats from Kenya among other handmade arts.
My colleagues and I got to take a tour of the studio and learn among other things, the names behind some of the artwork. For instance, Kenyan sculptor Kevin Oduor Wasonga is the hand behind the fine mesh clouds at the Kilimanjaro area of the studio. Kevin started his career in arts by painting and sketching, then got into sculpting where he started with Maasai head sculptures before moving to fuller pieces. Among Kevin’s most famous works are the Dedan Kimathi statue in CBD and that of the Kamba prophetess Syokimau. What is so inspiring about Kevin is that despite losing his right hand in an accident at a young age, he mustered the resilience and personal discipline to carry on with his craft.
The mood of the studio is greatly lifted with pendant lamps and shades which are made by two Kenyan ladies, Abagi and Lia. Their Nairobi based company which operates heavily under a belief of ethics and social justice only uses natural plant-based dyes and Kenyan materials, mostly sisal from Eastern Kenya. They also create employment by working in collaboration with local artisans.
There is also art by Swift9 – a Kenyan graffiti and urban artist well know for the vulture graffiti that we witnessed in downtown Nairobi a few years back. Swift9 is an accomplished mural painter who gives back by training young people on how to use art for advocacy. So far, he has trained 300 of them. He says that he does not limit his art to any particular concept, and works closely even with concerts around the world to experience different forms of art. He’s the one responsible for the graffiti on the repurposed minibus that is used at the studio to demonstrate Visa in public transport.
Also hard to miss at the studio are the fabrics. With their unique designs, vibrant colours and bold patterns, these fabrics commonly known as Kitenge have been used to make curtains at the studio, as well as in the demo shop which is part of Visa’s show case on how digital payments can be used by small merchants. The most symbolic of the Kitenge fabric is designed to recognize and celebrate the world peace legend Kofi Annan.
The studio also celebrates a collection of baskets from across Africa, including ceremonial serving baskets from Ghana. The baskets known as Bolga Baskets are made of guinea grass straw and goat leather handles and are woven traditionally.
These are just a few elements among many others that give the Visa Innovation Studio a truly African touch. Every part of the design is a vehicle through which Visa has financially empowered communities by working with individuals and groups alike. This is evident through commissioning of stand-alone artists and women groups to develop pieces for the space.
The names and works of the artists are captured in a QR code against each of the pieces, which visitors can scan and get to learn more.