Student Spotlight: A Seat for Sustainable Transportation

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

boda boda

I love to ride bikes. I grew up in Minneapolis riding to Dinkytown and commuting on Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway. When I moved to California five years ago, my love for bikes didn’t waiver. As I started to think about what type of company I wanted to intern for as part of my Master’s in Sustainable Design (SDO) degree (offered 100% online at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) so I can live and work in California), I knew I wanted to work on a sustainable transportation issue.

I was lucky to be connected through the SDO program’s director with John Gershenson, a professor at Michigan Technology University and co-founder of Baisikeli Ugunduzi, as they had met at the 2011 Sustainable Vision TeachingLab offered by the National Collegiate Inventors and innovators Alliance (NCIIA) in 2011. The TeachingLab was a 1-week workshop dedicated to supporting the development of affordable design curricula.

About Baisikeli Ugunduzi

Baisikeli Ugunduzi (Swahili for ‘modern bicycle’) designs and produces high quality bicycle components with the millions of rural poor who depend on bicycles to earn a living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Baisikeli Ugunduzi delivers value and support to those who have been marginalized by the global bike industry and taken advantage of by low quality Asian imports. We work with riders, mechanics, and bicycle taxi unions to design, produce, and distribute innovative, professional quality bicycle components that add value to working bicycles and improve the livelihoods of bicycle taxi drivers (Boda Boda) and those who earn a living on their bicycles sub-Saharan Africa.” (Excerpt from BU Facebook page.)

Putting theory into practice

This opportunity to intern with Baisikeli Ugunduzi allowed me to get involved with a project that considers sustainable design practices first-hand. One of the unique aspects of the SDO program is the opportunity to work with an extremely diverse group of people literally from around the world. This experience is a prime example of what the MCAD SDO program offers: collaboration for global design. I am located in Northern California, John is located in Michigan, and the Boda Boda are located in Kenya.

The objective of my internship with Baisikeli Ugunduzi was to develop innovative solutions for the Boda Boda’s bike seat. Seeing as how I have never been to Africa or ridden on a Boda Boda’s bicycle, I needed to do some research. What I learned through conversations with the Baisikeli Ugunduzi partner, as well as online sources, was that bicycle taxis are prevalent throughout Kenya and an important means for many Kenyans to make a living. My professional experience is in soft goods and I have extensive experience working with overseas manufacturing, but this was a different case. This project needed to be designed using local materials, low cost, and relatively straightforward to produce, in other words: an affordable design. I remember asking John at one point if the seats were hand sewn with a needle and thread or a machine? Turns out they use pedal foot machines, but this shows how unacquainted I was about what life is like in Kenya and it opened to my eyes to the scope of how diverse this project is!

Throughout the internship, I was dependent on John -who happened to be in the Kenya for the summer- to really paint the picture for me about what life is like in Kenya. We relayed emails on a regular basis as he got feedback from the Boda Boda on the designs I sent him.

Some of the upfront questions I had were:

  • Are there any fabric markets in Kenya? Yes, a few with a wide range of materials, but mostly all the seats are vinyl.
  • How much wear and tear can you expect to see during the life of the seat? A lot! The construction should be durable without any edges that can fray or be torn.
  • What color, style, and function does the Boda Boda like? A lot of the current seats have a lot of color, fringe, piping, and custom details.

To my surprise, the existing seats are BOLD! I had a blast looking through images online and getting a true sense from afar of how the seats were going to be used. It was thrilling to be part of designing something that is going to be used on the other side of the globe. I completed a collection of sketches, 3D models, and patterns outlining both the construction as well as the material options. These will assist in guiding the design and material direction for the final Boda Boda bicycle seat, which will be commercially produced in Kenya within a year.

As you can imagine there are challenging aspects of designing from three time zones, but put into perspective they become insignificant in the learning process and potential benefit of the final product. I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to give my input on such an important project for the Boda Boda. I look forward to seeking out more projects like this in my life as a designer.

Images courtesy of @Baisikeli Ugunduzi.

Kendra Hargens

Kendra Hargens has a strong background in fine art and design and is the first graduate of MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program (2012). She has been working on the soft goods industry for a decade and is passionate about incorporating sustainability into mainstream design and manufacturing processes. She is currently a designer with Fox Racing and was formerly a senior designer at Lowepro Wordwide. She is a member of the Outdoor Industry Sustainability Working Group, which brings together outdoor businesses whose first accomplishment was collaboratively developing the industry’s first environmental assessment tool: the Eco Index. Kendra is based in California.