Encountering a senseful social design project - conceived in a western country for a so-called Third World one - is a rather rare event. Most of these ventures usually share a top-down approach that renders them arrogant and meaningless on the long-term. Especially when they do not take into account existing social and economic dynamics or when they are aimed at solving problems that do not exist.
But Foroba Yelen, the community lighting project conceived by Italian architect and designer Matteo Ferroni, seems to be the proverbial exception that proves the rule.
Currently on show at the D'Albertis Castle, in Genoa (Italy)*, the exhibition Foroba Yelen, nights of light in Mali is dedicated to the homonymous project. We visited the show and met with Ferroni to understand better how the idea originated and where it is now headed to.
Thanks to his multi-faceted collaborations in the fields of theatre and music, during his career, Ferroni has developed a careful and sensible approach to light - an element that he considers “highly theatrical and culturally meaningful”.
It was back in 2010 that the designer visited Mali for the first time. There to realise an open-air theatre in the village of Segou - few hundred kilometres northeast of Bamako - he rapidly noticed the important role of portable lights, “in a country where the sunlight can be burning hot and public lighting is scarce”.
Fascinated by the “lively choreographies, almost like groups of fireflies moving in the dark landscape” generated by the intermittent use of portable lanterns - mostly kerosene or battery-operated - by the local population, Ferroni decided to set out for a deeper anthropological study of the Malian countryside and its relation to artificial light.
Over the following months, he discovered an articulated socio-economical structure, defined by the collective management of land and production facilities. A system that reminded him of the theories about self-sufficient communities that Russian anarchical philosopher Peter Kropotkin - one of Ferroni’s theoretical references - expressed in his writings Fields, Factories and Workshops.
The results of his observations were summarised one year later with the first prototype of the Foroba Yelen lamp. “An object that was to illuminate a specific action rather than a place, and that would seamlessly integrate within the existing cultural context”, as the designer underlines.
Combining upcycled elements and materials largely available in rural Mali - such as bicycle wheels, water pipes, and aluminium vessels - with a 15-watt LED module, Foroba Yelen came as a thoughtful and easily rechargeable source of light. “At first the LED module had to be bought from abroad, but with the diffusion of the internet the various parts can now be ordered online and are assembled locally”, says Ferroni.
As the designer emphasises, “the production of the light post rests on the existing skills of a network of artisans that can be found all over rural Mali. Thus making the object easily replicable and opening up the possibility for new design interpretations - something I wanted since the beginning.”
A humble approach - in which the figure of the designer fades away - that unconsciously evokes the open-source movement and the words of American architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, who once stated: “you have to make up your mind either to make sense or to make money, if you want to be a designer.” 
On a social level, Foroba Yelen also reaffirms the important role of women within their communities. They are in fact responsible for the entire life-cycle of the object: Generally organised in groups of 8 components, they order the lamps from the local craftsmen and then manage their recharging and renting to the various users.
“What surprised me the most was that little by little the lamp truly entered the everyday life of the communities and was adopted for a wide range of uses which, frankly, I had not thought of!”, laughs Ferroni. Applications range from agricultural activities - such as animal vaccinations - to more intimate happenings - such as baptisms and funerals. “And, for instance, the lamp has also proven to be the perfect companion for teachers, who use it to run open-air classes”, says the designer.
Ferroni chose to work with a very specific kind of LED. The module he selected casts a sharp circle of light on the ground, “the size of which is very similar to that of the shadows of acacia trees during the day”. As he underlines, “it is very interesting to observe how people interact with the illuminated area.
Something I have noticed is that people tend to respect that circle and enter it only if they need to perform a required action. And that happens both in the Malian countryside and during the presentations that I organise here in Europe!”
After more than five years since the start of his venture, Ferroni has now decided to produce an open-source guidebook. “It shall enable communities everywhere in the world to freely adopt and adapt the Foroba Yelen design”, suggests the designer. An undeclared hommage to the socially-engaged work ethic of American designer and educator Victor Papanek, who, back in the seventies, affirmed the necessity of “work[ing] together and help[ing] each other without colonialism or neo-colonial exploitation.”  So far approximately 100 lamps were assembled and distributed all over Mali. Hopefully, the publication will help to spread the object and its principle even further.
Address: Castello d’Albertis, Corso Dogali 18, 16136 Genova, Italy
Dates: Until April 6, 2018
More info: museum website (only in Italian); ph. +39 010 272 38 20; email@example.com
 R. Buckminster Fuller, in Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1971, p. 73;  Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1971, p. XXV;
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