Issue 35 Feature Design

Ravi Naidoo

On embracing the ideas economy and reshaping Africa’s narrative by Kimon de Greef

December 23, 2015

Ravi Naidoo tends not to falter. One wonders when he rests. His energy fills any room he enters, and despite his broad frame, he moves lightly, swiveling on his toes as conversation dictates. He speaks in paragraphs, not sentences, with a radio presenter’s attention to phrasing. He laughs quickly. He remembers names. After 20 years in the engine room of South Africa’s creative economy, which in the same period has grown from a backwater industry into a thriving international hub, Naidoo has mastered the art of engagement and building relationships. It’s a skill that appears effortless but demands great focus and drive. In Naidoo’s company—which is charming, but also taxing—you can just about hear him think.

At 51, Naidoo is one of the leading figures in Cape Town’s vibrant design scene, coordinating its premier annual event: the Design Indaba Festival. Indaba is part conference, part expo, drawing together a wide mix of creative professionals from around the globe in a celebration of artistic endeavor. Speakers this past February included Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey, Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop, and William Kentridge, one of South Africa’s most highly acclaimed visual artists. “Other events have started emulating what we do,” says Naidoo. “Imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery.”

When he was younger, Naidoo was strongly encouraged to enroll in a “bankable” university program. “I studied medicine because it was reliable,” he explained. “We were expected to pursue safe, stable careers.” And though he graduated a physiologist, his heart urged him toward more creative pursuits.

“Apartheid was ending, and I felt compelled to help build the new South Africa,” he says. “There was a tremendous sense of opportunity. So many people were trying to change the country. I was convinced that design and creativity had a major role to play.”

In 1994, Naidoo launched his own firm, Interactive Africa—“a strange hybrid between a creative agency and a production company,” as he describes it—which was instrumental in such notable projects as the 1999 African Connection Rally, the 2002 First African In Space mission, and the successful South African bid for the 2010 soccer World Cup.

“I recognized a need for something different: design that met the needs of people and society, not of brands,” he says.

Key to Naidoo’s philosophy is positioning Africa as a source of inspiration, flipping the script on colonial approaches that value the continent solely in terms of extractable assets. “This stuff wasn’t appreciated,” says Naidoo, tapping his forehead. “Africa has resources that were never invested in. It’s time to embrace the ideas economy.”

Design has become a particularly hot topic since Naidoo first started in the field, both globally and locally. Cape Town was even named 2014’s “world design capital” by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, due in no small part to seeds Naidoo sowed two decades ago. Yet, he has watched the ideas industry grow with tempered enthusiasm.

“We’ve been driven by the belief that design can improve the world,” Naidoo says. “It’s great that people have started thinking like this, but change isn’t just about talking. It’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting things done.”

Photos by Charlie Shoemaker

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Ravi Naidoo On embracing the ideas economy and reshaping Africa’s narrative