What can we learn from a car designed for Madagascar?

Design is political. As Caroline Criado Perez has described in her book Invisible Women, most design work is carried out by men, who use themselves as the basis for what they create. The result is mobile phones optimised for larger hands, for example. Crash test dummies are based on male bodies, leading to cars that are safer for men than women.

This is true for children as well, often a second consideration in a world that uses grown men as a reference point. And it’s true across geography. Global corporations design products for use around the world, and most of that design work will be in the global north. If you’re Apple or Ford or GE, you’ll be thinking of your primary markets first, and your designers will be based in those countries. The upshot is that global products are tailored to the needs of the richest 10%.

What would it look like then, if you designed a car for Madagascar?

We don’t need to theorise, because it has already been done. Karenjy is a Malagasy company that designs and manufactures cars in the city of Fianarantsoa. They only sell them in Madagascar and so I’d be surprised if you’ve ever heard of them, but there’s an interesting story here.

Back in the 1980s, Madagascar was in a socialist phase under president Ratsiraka. He believed in state-run business and greater independence from overseas powers, and so he created a Malagasy Bureau of Innovation. They opened workshops to support local engineering and develop a boat for the navy, a car brand, and a plane called the Hitsikitsika. Only the car came to much, with around 100 Karenjy cars hand-built over the next few years. The high point was building a popemobile for John Paul II’s visit in 1989, an event that I remember very well.

When Ratsiraka left office, Karenjy was shut down immediately. The factory sat empty for 15 years, half-built cars lying around in various states of decay. Then the facility was acquired by a not-for-profit called Le Relais. They refurbished the factory to build agricultural machinery and for renewable energy projects, but the half-built cars and a stock of parts were still on site. They wondered if they could at least finish off the cars that were there, and use it as an engineer training exercise.

The engineers at Le Relais learned about car manufacturing on the job, and by the time they’d finished the stock from the 90s, they felt confident enough to relaunch the brand. In doing so, they created what is probably the only not-for-profit car company in the world – I certainly can’t find any other examples. Then they re-launched with a new design of their own: the Mazana II.

This is a small SUV designed specifically for Malagasy driving conditions. It’s a 4×4 with considerable ground clearance, a cab for passengers and pick-up space at the back. The bodywork is mostly flat panels, as curved panels are more expensive – something Citroen are doing with their brand new prototype the Oli. It is simple, affordable, and easy to repair.

One of the distinctive features of the Karenjy is the way it is sloped down and pinched at the front. Karenjy joke that every other car looks the same, but it’s not for the sake of being different.

The angle of the hood improves the driver’s view of the road at close distances, which helps to spot potholes or passing chickens. Yes, Karenjy’s website includes this graphic, showing that chickens on the road have been taken into consideration in the design – uniquely perhaps, in all the cars in history.

The pinched nose is similarly practical. The driver is able to see exactly where the car stops, making it easier to safely navigate through streets crowded with people, rickshaws, bikes or herds of cattle. In many cities in the global south, traffic isn’t just other cars, and the Karenjy takes these other more vulnerable road users into account.

Madagascar is also hot, and cars easily overheat under the tropical sun. Karenjy have two built-in solutions. One is the angle of the glass. The windscreen and windows are unusually upright, and this reduces the amount of glass exposed to the sun. The second is a dual-layer roof. As the car moves, air is drawn into the space between and vents the heat away from the cabin.

The Karenjy has a diesel engine, so I’m not writing about it as a paragon of sustainability. I’m writing about it because I think it’s a real case study in design for the 90%. It challenges us to think about who is served by design. What is considered important enough to get onto the design brief? Whose needs are prioritised? It asks questions about truly global design, and if such a thing is even possible.


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