South Africa

Daily Maverick 168

Ravi Naidoo – man of ideas…and action

Ravi Naidoo – man of ideas…and action
Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo is currently working on a project using a robot called ALEX to a build a cross-laminated timber bridge over the Liesbeek River. (Photo: SHELLEY CHRISTIANS)

For creative entrepreneur Ravi Naidoo, ideas are powerful, but putting them into action is what changes the world.

First published in Daily Maverick 168

Ravi Naidoo is a man of action. When we meet him at a Cape Town factory, where his latest project is being incubated, he’s wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Think Tank. Do Tank”. This is how Naidoo describes Design Indaba, one of the world’s premier creative festivals, of which he is the founder.

It’s hard to keep up with the dynamic entrepreneur as he dances around the factory floor while explaining the cutting-edge technology behind an ecofriendly bridge he plans to build over the Liesbeek River.

Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo (left) and Jamie Smily from Xlab pose next to ALEX the robot. They are currently working on a project using ALEX to a build a cross-laminated timber bridge over the Liesbeek River. (Photo: SHELLEY CHRISTIANS)

“The only limiting step is to get all the permissions aligned and, as soon as that happens, one of our 25th anniversary celebration projects at Design Indaba will be the first major cross-laminated timber structure in South Africa,” says Naidoo.  

He describes his life as a “series of projects” resulting in an enviable CV, which includes: being the founder of Interactive Africa – the company behind Design Indaba – the marketing bid to host the 2010 World Cup and South Africa’s 2002 space mission. He’s also co-founder of Rain, South Africa’s first 5G network.

Naidoo believes in the power of turning ideas into reality, a philosophy which permeates through Design Indaba, which leverages design thinking for activism, art and solving real-world problems. Since its inception in 1995, the festival has produced more than 200 projects, including the prolific Arch for Arch, a commemorative structure for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 86th birthday, near St George’s Cathedral. One of the highlights of Naidoo’s career was handing over 10 houses to recipients in Freedom Park as part of Design Indaba’s 10×10 low-cost housing project. “Nothing was as emotional and supercharged as that morning.”

Born in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, Naidoo grew up in Chatsworth. Both his parents were teachers. “I left pretty early to come and study at UCT and never went back,” says Naidoo, who, despite his creative impulse, studied a BSc in Physiology. “It’s the joys of growing up in a typical Indian family,” he laughs. “You have to do the rock-solid thing; either you would do medicine, law or teaching.”

Growing up under apartheid, career options “weren’t limitless”.  Ironically, studying medicine served him well when he landed a job at an advertising agency managing a pharmaceutical account. “It was my wormhole, my entryway into the creative industry.”

Decades later, Naidoo is a key player in the industry with a keen desire to use design as a tool to add value to society. His latest project, which he speaks about with childlike enthusiasm, is deceptively simplistic.

It’s a cross-laminated timber (CLT) bridge made entirely out of eucalyptus, an invasive plant species. The project, which is a collaboration with British designer Paul Cocksedge, is set to be built across the Liesbeek River in Cape Town.

Inspired by the city’s brush with Day Zero, the region’s water crisis of 2017/18, the bridge is aimed at water conservation. After reading a scientific study which found that alien vegetation was draining the water table equivalent to a dam’s worth, Naidoo and his team explored solutions, which culminated in this idea. But the bridge is also a gesture of gratitude to the Friends of Liesbeek River, a civic organisation that helps to keep the river clean.

“I thought, maybe a good gesture from us at Design Indaba would be to build a bridge for the fabulous folks who maintain this river,” Naidoo says.

The bridge, in its hidden complexity, uses innovative and sustainable construction techniques. Naidoo teamed up with XLAM, a mass timber construction company and Africa’s first producer of CLT – an ecofriendly alternative to concrete or steel that could one day be used for low-cost housing.

“Essentially, the technique is to cut strips of timber, glue it in a particular way that would give it structural integrity, that would approach the integrity of concrete.”  

The components of the bridge will be built off-site and transported to the river, where it is assembled like building blocks.

To add to the intrigue, a robot named ALEX (A Laminating EXpert) is making the components. Its former job was doing grunt work in a car manufacturing plant.

For Naidoo, this is an exciting example of 4IR at work. “We’re not just making a bridge; we are using leading-edge technology in order to make it.”

Despite his busy schedule, Naidoo finds time to be still. His morning ritual involves indulging in a cup of green tea with “ginger shavings”. During lockdown, he’s rekindled his love for gardening and now has a bountiful vegetable patch, which he shares with his wife and two children.

“We’ve got more vegetables than we can eat ourselves, so we share it with folks around,” he says, marvelling at the possibilities of urban farming.

For Naidoo, his greatest inspiration in life is his father, who died in 1994.

“I miss him a lot and he passed away way too early,” he says.  

“Watching him as a youngster and seeing how selfless he was, and how he was loved by the community as a bit of a folk hero back in Durbs, was a huge inspiration.” DM168


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