A Bicycle for Humanity

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

What is it like to design for the developing world – to try to create products that will help to lift people out of poverty? In many ways, it’s just like any other design challenge, the difference being that your client may have radically different constraints than you’re used to, and perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the user’s world.

Many years ago, I helped the folks at Worldbike – then called Xaccess, a non-profit extension of Xtracycle – to design a better cargo-carrying bike for low-income farmers and tradespeople living in Africa. They had already put a small team of people together, and spent time in their target locations over in Africa gathering data and stories from real people about what they needed, how better cargo bikes would fit into their lifestyle and context, and what manufacturing capabilities and parts were commonly available locally. This was where much of the hard work lay .

As with many design problems, formulating the right question is the most important step in your process – once you’ve asked the right question good answers will start popping out. For instance, the meaning of a bicycle in rural Africa is completely different than the meaning of a bike in America. For a poor farmer in Africa, a bicycle is a delivery truck – the way in which goods get to customers. The vast majority of people who own bikes in rural areas are able to make a living because of their bikes.

The bikes they buy are very cheap, but as a result are not durable. Carrying heavy loads of food, people, or cargo on a bike every day causes the bike to wear out or break in the span of only a few years. So, how can a design team create a bike that is durable enough to last three or four times longer, but still retain a cost in their price range? A longer life means the bike owner doesn’t have to keep buying a new bike every few years, and thus can yield more profit. In addition, if the bike can carry more cargo, then the owner makes even more profit. Both aspects will help owners of the product to lift themselves out of poverty – these were the design specifications.

I joined them briefly, pro bono, to help generate some ideas given the constraints they had. For instance, what was the cheapest possible frame design for the maximum load-carrying capacity? To know this, first you have to know what materials are cheap in Africa – it’s not the same as what can be found in the U.S. The cost of materials is often more than the cost of labor, not less, and the manufacturing processes cost different amounts for welding, cutting tubes, laying frames, etc. The precision of manufacturing is lower as well, which must be considered when designing parts that are meant to fit together.

Component costs can also influence the design in ways unfamiliar to most U.S. designers. In this case, cable brakes were too expensive, and so lever brakes were favored. If you’re from the U.S. you may have never seen lever brakes on a bike because no one uses them here. Cable breaks are considered so cheap by our standards that they are the default and there’s no reason to have anything else.

It’s an intriguing set of problems that can force a designer to do a better job than a typical project back in the U.S, because when working on problems that have previously been encountered more assumptions can be made about solutions – more can be taken for granted. To design for the developing world however, a designer must be more thorough about getting to know the user and the context of use, because it’s unfamiliar territory. Likewise, a designer must have a greater knowledge of how things are made in order to make good decisions about what to make and how.

The Worldbike project helped many Africans to make a better living for themselves, and it is a great feeling to know that I have contributed to that. It also doesn’t hurt that the bicycle was featured in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s exhibition, which debuted in 2007 and is still touring today. Interestingly, today the Worldbike team has transitioned to helping people by improving distribution of other bicycles that are mass manufactured at a larger scale, rather than manufacturing their own. This is a good lesson for designers, too. Don’t get too attached to the artifacts you design. Sometimes the best design solution is a better system for existing artifacts.

Image courtesy of Jeremy Faludi.