Field trial in Malawi: Primary school furniture design and guidelines

The Primary School Furniture Design and Procurement Guidelines project is currently conducting a field trial in Malawi. The guidelines, which are intended to support staffs at country office level, cover all aspects of furniture deployment such as sourcing of suppliers, procurement, design of furniture, production, delivery and maintenance.

The aim of the field trial is to test the user-ease and likeability of the guidelines and the included furniture designs developed specially for this project by Murphy Burnham Buttrick and UNICEF. The guidelines will provide several benefits to the countries:

  • Firstly, the project is looking into the possibility of utilizing flat-packed furniture which will allow local artisans or other users to assemble the furniture themselves.
  • Secondly, the flat pack furniture format reduces the damage caused by the distribution and transportation process which has been encountered with ready built furniture.
  • It will also be easy to scale as it works with open source solutions in which all the materials are readily available in the local environment. This in turn prevents UNICEF and its partners from importing furniture from the outside, which results in a more cost-effective and environmental friendly solution. More importantly however, is that the open source solution will empower local businesses, local schools, and the local community at large.

The field trial has been divided into three phases covering the following evaluations;

  1. Production & Design evaluation
  2. Delivery & Installation evaluation
  3. Post-installation evaluation.

So far, the project has completed its first phase of Production & Design. UNICEF Innovation, along with the design company Murphy Burnham Buttrick, travelled to Malawi to evaluate the production phase of the school furniture. Data collected from the trip provided valuable feedback on how to improve the guidelines and the furniture design, as the project team had the opportunity to meet with colleagues from the field as well as working closely with the local artisans thereby developing a common understanding of the challenges when procuring and producing the furniture locally.

The UNICEF team working with local manufacturers in Malawi. Photo credit: UNICEF/Bo Strange Sorensen/Malawi/2014
The UNICEF team working with local manufacturers in Malawi. Photo credit: UNICEF/Bo Strange Sorensen/Malawi/2014

Challenges originated from the cultural differences in the work environment and the approach to technical specifications. The drawings were perceived as an overall guidance rather than a mandatory instruction which should be followed. Furthermore, the local perspective was that the details in the design were not important, rather it was important to adjust the design to what they believed made sense in the local setting. It therefore became evident in the first phase of the evaluations, that bridging this gap of differences in understanding is the key to success for future productions.

An on-site assembly experiment will take place in June during the second evaluation phase: Delivery & Installation, which will allow UNICEF to talk and receive feedback from local artisans and/or manufacturers who are responsible for the furniture installation and delivery. The third phase will be the Post-installation evaluation, in which UNICEF will talk with local school children in Malawi, to get first-hand opinion on the school furniture itself. In addition, UNICEF will be talking to teachers and school staff to get a holistic understanding of the furniture’s impact on their learning process. This evaluation will be completed after the school summer holiday in 2014, when sufficient testing has been done.

The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2014 with hopes of the Procurement Guidelines and the School Furniture design being adopted internally, built locally, and scaled globally. A special thanks and acknowledgements go to the Malawi Country Office for their cooperation and work on this project.

See more here

Katinka Forbord

Innovation Unit

UNICEF Supply Division, Copenhagen


The final prototypes. Photo credit: UNICEF/Bo Strange Sorensen/Malawi/2014
The final prototypes. Photo credit: UNICEF/Bo Strange Sorensen/Malawi/2014


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