The Malawi Handcart Project addresses problems associated with the lack of wheeled transport in Africa.
I first became aware of the problems posed by African’s lack of wheeled transport as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in 1967-68. The absence of wheeled transport necessitates the expenditure of excessive amounts of physical labor, typically as headloading, for any appreciable load carrying. It also severely curtails the amount of weight and volume that can be transported at any one time. This dearth of wheeled transport has had an enormous negative impact on African’s quality of life, on their economic (especially their agricultural) productivity, and on their health. As African women traditionally perform most transport work, the lack of wheeled transport exacerbates prevailing gender inequality, not only adding to women’s burden, but by taking up girl’s time with carrying water and firewood, preventing them from attending school.
The lack of wheeled transport increases African’s morbidity and mortality. In most subsistence farmsteads, food production is exclusively reliant on manual labor, and production is diminished by the need to expend time and caloric energy on transport, as opposed to agricultural tasks. This in turn contributes to the endemic malnutrition of Malawian children. The lack of wheeled transport means that most African households, rural and urban, obtain their domestic water (for drinking, cooking, and washing) from more or less distant sources, water carried on the heads of women and children in amounts of no more than five gallons at a time. This requires large energy and time expenditures, and frequently results in an inadequate supply of water for domestic hygiene, resulting in an excess of skin, eye and gastro-intestinal disease, especially in infants and children. Lack of wheeled transport is responsible for many deaths in medical, especially obstetric emergencies, where no ambulance service is available, and where the patient is too sick to sit on the back of a bicycle.
The availability of wheeled transport is fundamental to civilization as we know it, and to any meaningful form of economic development. And so, a complementary challenge has been to address the failure of the ‘development community’ to act to transfer an existing, appropriate, mature, and affordable technology, namely the lightweight handcart, to fill this African transport void. This challenge has been compounded by that posed by unresponsive government and NGO bureaucracies, who seen indifferent to addressing (as opposed to merely recognizing) the problem of providing on-farm transport to subsistence farmers, and specifically of utilizing human-powered lightweight handcarts. (See New York Times article of 09/14/02)
The bicycle is by far the most common form of wheeled transport in Africa. Unfortunately bicycles have essentially no applications on (as opposed to off) the farmstead. Bicycles and their spares are major consumer goods in Africa. Many businesses sell and service bicycles, which are imported almost exclusively from India and China. Yet although a bewildering variety of lightweight handcarts (wheeled luggage, baby carriages, shopping carts, garden carts, golf carts, letter carrier carts, hand trucks) are commonplace in developed countries, where they are sold at a profit, benefiting both seller and buyer alike, neither the commercial nor the consumer sector in Malawi (as elsewhere in Africa) are aware of their existence, let alone of their economic potential. My challenge therefore includes educating the commercial sector of the market potential of lightweight handcarts, and the African consumer of the advantages handcarts can confer to their quality of life, as well as of their time- and labor-saving capabilities, which translate into enhanced economic productivity, enhanced domestic food supply and hence increased income derived from the sale of agricultural surplus.
The Malawi Handcart is trying to improve the quality of life and the economic productivity of Africans by providing them with affordable and appropriate wheeled transport.
For more information, please download a pdf of the project.
Arnold Wendroff, PhD.