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«THE MALAWI CART: An Affordable Bicycle-Wheel Wood-Frame Handcart for Agricultural, Rural and Urban Transport Applications in Africa Arnold P. ...»

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THE MALAWI CART: An Affordable Bicycle-Wheel Wood-Frame Handcart for

Agricultural, Rural and Urban Transport Applications in Africa

Arnold P. Wendroff, Ph.D.

Research Associate, Department of Geology, Brooklyn College / City University of New York;

Director, Malawi Handcart Project


An affordable bicycle-wheel wood-frame handcart has been developed in Malawi for use by

smallholder farmers and by city dwellers for whom animal drawn carts are unaffordable or impractical or both. The Malawi Cart makes use of readily available materials and can be built by any carpenter possessing common hand tools. This paper explains why handcarts are needed, how the Malawi Cart was developed, aspects of handcart manufacture, describes preliminary testing and evaluation in Malawi and Kenya, and sets forth strategies for getting the handcart into widespread use in sub-Sahara Africa.

Introduction “Although development efforts have created extensive road networks [in much of sub-Sahara Africa (SSA)], wheeled transport remains unavailable to most farmers, … The inability to transport their crops to market prevents many farmers from entering the market economy” (Wendroff, 1993). Without access to efficient and affordable transport, farmers in eastern and southern Africa have little choice but to “carry farm inputs and produce on their heads and shoulders,” work that is “slow, difficult and tedious” (Kumwenda, in press). If African farmers, restricted by the limitations of human muscle power, are ever to succeed in extending their cultivation beyond the subsistence level (Dibbits, 1993; Kumwenda, 1999), it will have to be by making use of wheeled devices to increase their work efficiency. Animal-drawn vehicles are far beyond the means of most African farmers. Human-powered handcarts, however, are not. Both affordable and efficient, handcarts are not only a viable alternative to draught-animal carts, but in many settings are preferable to them.

Smallholder farmers live on their farms and engage in a variety of agricultural and non-agricultural transport activities. It has been estimated that the typical SSA household spends 200 to 450 hours per year on agricultural transport, and 600 to 1,500 hours per year on domestic transport, mainly in providing itself with water and firewood. “About 75% of the transport activity involves short trips, less than 6km, in and around the village e.g. to and from the fields” (Dennis, 1993). Water collection is a daily activity in most households, and firewood is gathered every few days. Both tasks are almost exclusively carried out by women using headloading (Barwell, 1996). This burdensome domestic transport uses up time and energy that could otherwise be applied to productive agricultural activity. Its never-ceasing demands leave African women with that much less leisure time (Bishop, 1995) and erode that much further their quality of life (Clarke, 2000).

Although the purpose of encouraging the widespread use of draught animal carts (‘oxcarts’ for the purpose of this paper) is laudable, it is likely that, continuing into the foreseeable future, only a minority of SSA households will be able to own such carts. The factors limiting oxcart acquisition include “limited availability of draft animals, … [limited] credit availability, … [limited] food and water supplies, lack of equipment and spare parts and land shortages.” “The human population is so high in some areas that there is insufficient land for animals such as donkeys” (Kumwenda, in press). Added to all of this is the scarcity of imported steel for oxcart construction (Sosovele, 1999; von Keyserlingk, 1999).

European farmers and missionaries introduced oxcarts into much of SSA in the early 1900’s (Simalenga, 1993). That they did not also introduce handcarts of some sort, probably has to do with the fact that, unlike Asians, “Europeans did not generally use human traction for long hauls” (Matthies, 1991). It has been plausibly argued that Western notions about men’s and women’s “natural” place in society have also operated to discourage the introduction into SSA of technologies that would lessen women’s burden of work (Spring, 1995). Both of these factors may still be impeding the introduction of handcart technology to SSA.

As the population of the subsistence agricultural community of SSA expands, the need for improved means of transport becomes only more pressing. “Many farmers cannot afford to purchase the draft animal power package” (Kumwenda, in press), in large part because their farms are too small to support draught animals and/or to amortize their expense and that of an oxcart. A growing population within a fixed amount of arable land can only result in shrinkage of the size of holdings. “In 1990, … about 56% of rural [Malawian] households cultivated less than one hectare, and … the mean overall farm size is 1.1 hectare” (Mwinjilo, 1999), further eroding the economic viability of draught animal transport. It is, therefore, unrealistic to make draught animals the exclusive focus of efforts to introduce improved and affordable transport to SSA, unrealistic now and for the foreseeable future. In Mozambique, only 4% of all households own draught animals and only about 1.5% own oxcarts (de Toro & Nhantumbo, 1999). With understandable impatience Sosovele remarks, “after almost a century of activities relating to the development and use of animal traction in Tanzania, many [most] farmers are no closer to adopting the technology” (Sosovele, 1999).

The introduction of affordable handcarts offers an attractive solution to this African transport problem. The number of farm families that can be immediately assisted by the dissemination of this simple technology is many times greater than those that can realistically aspire to oxcart or donkey-cart ownership.

If the development community’s goal is to enhance the transport capabilities of as many Africans as possible, in the shortest time and in the most cost-effective manner, we must soberly reassess the market potential for animal-drawn vehicles and consider the substantial merits of handcarts.

Handcarts vs. Draught-Animal Carts I do not mean to argue against all efforts to introduce animal traction into SSA. However the current and foreseeable economic situation of most African smallholder farmers precludes them and will continue to preclude them from purchasing and maintaining draught animals and the agricultural implements they pull.

And as the SSA population increases and average farm size decreases, the ability of farm families to support their own draught animals is bound to decrease. Handcarts can help to fill this transport void.

Cost: In Malawi in 2000, per capita income in the subsistence-farming sector was roughly MK 3,600 Malawi Kwacha (MK). That same year, an oxcart manufactured in the workshop of the GTZ-sponsored Phwezi Technical College was MK 24,000. Since an oxcart is useless without an animal to draw it, it took substantially more than MK 24,000 for a Malawian farmer to acquire such a cart and put it into service.

Moreover, as Kinsey has observed, “engineers have apparently found it impossible to come up with [agricultural] equipment innovations which increase productivity enough to cover their own costs on the very small farms which prevail in Malawi” (Kinsey, 1984). Apart from hiring out his vehicle, the ability of an oxcart owner to amortize his investment is very limited. In view of this large disparity between cost and income, it is unrealistic to expect that the means of most Malawian smallholder farmers will increase sufficiently to enable them to afford oxcarts. In the early 20th century U.S.A. “horses and carriages were only for the well-to-do” (Aronson, 1952). This is equally true of oxcart ownership in present-day Malawi and in the rest of SSA, and it will remain true for some time to come.

By contrast, in 2000 the cost of a bicycle-wheel handcart--the Malawi Cart---manufactured by the Livingstonia Technical College was MK 2,400, one tenth that of an oxcart. In terms of cost, then, handcarts are clearly one solution to unmet transport needs, not only in Malawi, but also throughout SSA.

Utilization and Convenience: Oxcarts are heavy and cumbersome. The animals that draw them require continued feeding and care, on the job and off. Their rate of progress of 3-4 km/hr is less than human walking speed, and at 800-1000 kilograms (Dennis, 1993) their carrying capacity is generally well above the average farmstead load. Capacity loads will generally be limited to harvest times and to episodic construction projects. All of this means that, for the great majority of trips on smallholder farms, an oxcart will be filled to only a small fraction of its capacity.

The size, manageability, load capacity, and ease of use of a handcart are, by contrast, much better fitted to a smallholder farm’s everyday transport needs. It is far more convenient and time-saving to lift the handles of a handcart and wheel it off than to locate the draft animal, harness it, and drive the cumbersome vehicle to one’s destination. At the end of the trip, there is no need to unharness, pasture and stable it.

“Unlike the horse [or donkey or ox], it is not a source of care or anxiety” (Aronson, 1952). Although Aronson refers to the adoption of the bicycle in the U.S.A of 1867, his observation is equally applicable to the use of handcarts in SSA in 2002.

2 Gender, Age and Health Considerations: Cattle, oxcarts and bicycles have traditionally been under the control of men. “Animal traction … is a man’s technology” (IFAD/FAO, 1998). Yet it is on women that by far the greatest burden—at least 65% (Dennis, 1993)—of domestic carrying tasks falls. Although the bicycle played an important role in emancipating American women (Aronson, 1952), in SSA its use has largely been confined to men. Handcarts, having no association with cattle and far less costly and prestigious then bicycles or oxcarts, in male-dominated African societies stand a much better chance of being allocated to women. Being much lighter and handier than oxcarts, they also much more easily be used by children, who, given the prevalence of HIV infection in SSA, are increasingly having to do adults’ work and fend for themselves. Furthermore, a major factor in morbidity and mortality, especially among SSA’s children, is the lack of adequate water for domestic hygiene, which contributes greatly to children’s diarrhoeal diseases. By making water transport more convenient, handcarts use can make a substantial contribution towards limiting oral-fecal disease transmission. (Kirkwood, 1991) Materials availability: Oxcart construction calls for rolled steel sections, plate, welding rod, and hard-to-find and expensive steel axle and bearing components. By contrast, except for nuts and bolts, screws and nails, and its bicycle-wheel components—all things readily available at most trading centres— the Malawi Cart is constructed exclusively from locally sawed lumber. This is in keeping with a key element of the idea behind it: that the handcart be readily capable of local manufacture. Such capability is of prime importance in ensuring that the Malawi Cart will be widely available and widely affordable.

Spares and Maintenance: The Malawi Cart handcart design employs ordinary bicycle rear wheels.

Spares are available throughout SSA. The cart’s frame and body are made of common wood planks, and its metal fasteners (nuts and bolts, screws and nails) are to be had in even very modest trading centres. The skills required for the cart’s maintenance are those of ordinary carpentry and bicycle repair; the same is true of the required tools. Tyre repair and replacement, and the truing of twisted rims are the most common maintenance items. The cost of repairs and spares for a handcart is much less than for an oxcart.

Manufacturing requirements: Oxcart construction requires workshops with substantial capital investment in metal fabricating apparatus and electrical supply and with trained metalworkers. In SSA such workshops are few, and are concentrated in towns. In contrast, Malawi Carts can be built by urban and rural carpenters using ordinary hand tools: their construction calls only for modest capital investment. And carpenters capable of making serviceable and affordable handcarts are to be found in even the most rural settings. Although the Malawi Cart incorporates some small steel components, these are either utilized in the form in which they are purchased (fasteners, wheels) or they can easily be fashioned by the carpenter himself from scrap sheet metal (wear and locking plates). The point is that the skills and equipment of a blacksmith are not required. As there are many more carpenters in SSA than blacksmiths, the scarcity of blacksmiths (IFAD/FAO, 1998) poses no constraint on the widespread manufacture of the Malawi Cart handcart design.

Animal purchase, training and maintenance: Oxcarts and donkey carts require draught animals to pull them. These animals must be purchased and trained, fed and watered. Few smallholder farmers can afford such animals: money aside, in many cases their farm plots are inadequate to provide sufficient forage. It is burdensome, furthermore, to feed, water, and quarter draught animals driven to market early in the morning and led back in the evening (Kumwenda, in press). For most city dwellers, ownership of a draught animal is entirely impractical. Moreover, many areas in SSA harbour insect pests and diseases such as trypanosomiasis, that are harmful to draught animals. None of these constraints is applicable to handcarts.

A Handcart Primer The most common handcart type currently in use in SSA is the wheelbarrow. Wheelbarrows, however, are relatively expensive, have a small volumetric capacity, are unsuited for carrying long loads like lumber or poles, and they require the operator to lift up to half of the weight of the combined load-pluswheelbarrow and balance it laterally over the one wheel. The solid or semi-pneumatic tyres of most wheelbarrows have a high rolling resistance, provide little shock absorption, and their wheel bearings are crude. Wheelbarrows are, therefore ergonomically inefficient and inappropriate for long-distance transport.

3 Dennis calculates that, owing to this inefficiency, the typical wheelbarrow load of 80kg carried at 3-4 kilometers per hour, will have a typical daily range of only 5-6 kilometers (Dennis, 1993).

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