In Kenya, Malawi and other African countries the bicycle provides one of the main means of transport for small farmers. In Sri Lanka street vendors sell cigarettes from bicycles; in Colombo they are used to deliver cooked lunches to factory and office workers. In Indian cities millions travel to and from work every day by bicycle.
In Tanzania rural health workers use bicycles to visit the villages. A workshop on the shore of Lake Malawi makes bicycle ambulances - two-wheeled stretcher trailers - used to carry the sick to the nearest hospital. The bicycle’s pedal-drive system is also used for stationary applications, to drive an irrigation pump or a maize sheller.
The bicycle is probably the most popular and important vehicle in the Third World. It is cheap to purchase and to operate. There is no expensive petrol to buy, maintenance is easy and the necessary skills are widely available, A United Nations survey of transport in India concluded ‘the bicycle is the nearest thing to a mass vehicle, with one being owned by approximately one in four of the close to 100 million households’. The accompanying table shows just how prolific is the bike in comparison to the car, particularly in the countryside where 70 per cent of Indian bikes are found. Compared with walking, often the only alternative, the bicycle offers an attractive increase in mobility. Besides taking the rider it is regularly used to carry passengers and heavy loads balanced on the front or rear carriers or the crossbar. In rural areas the bicycle can be used away from roads on footpaths or farm tracks to reach the many villages and fields with no road access. From an economic viewpoint, concluded an Indonesian survey, the most important use of the bicycle is probably the haulage of 2-4 sacks of harvest and fodder from the fields to the village.
Most Third World governments and international aid agencies scorn the bike. Town transport planning rarely thinks of producing bicycle facilities. Road building is almost solely for motor vehicles, The number of developing countries producing or assembling bicycles (with local content) is almost certainly less than those making motor vehicles. It’s obvious the glamour and prestige lies in boosting car assembly lines. Yet owning a car for the great majority of Third World people is as inaccessible as Jupiter.
The bicycle found everywhere in Africa, Asia and Latin America is a traditional upright design popular in the West 30-40 years ago - the `policeman’s’ bike. It is strong and heavy, can take weighty loads and go on rough tracks. Although it is better suited to local conditions than snazzy modern bikes it is by no means ideal - try riding one with two passengers or a couple of bags of rice along a bumpy earth track, particularly if it has been raining! Commented a senior executive in the Indian cycle industry: ‘The bike we are making today is very much the same as 25 years ago … There has been no adaption to the way it is used.’ Why has nobody produced a bicycle to suit developing country conditions?
A redesign of the bicycle would present an ideal opportunity to make it more suitable for local manufacture. Many parts of a conventional bicycle are produced by large-scale manufacture using highly sophisticated methods. Few individual countries have a sufficiently large market on their own to build such bicycles at a competitive price, and so metropolitan countries like France, the U.K. and Italy still export large consignments to the Third World.
A simple means of adapting a bicycle to carry heavy loads is to attach a twowheeled trailer. Cycle trailers are currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity in industrialised countries. Each month seems to see a new manufacturer joining the market. They can be produced cheaply but except in a few Francophone countries are rarely found in the Third World. Kenya, for example has 40-60,000 rural bicycles but not a single cycle trailer. This would be a real revolutionary spread of technology that could touch the common man to the quick. But somehow to save energy with trailers is less attention-grabbing than to expend it on weather satellites.
Ian Barwell, Executive Director of Intermediate Technology Ltd., was lecturer in mechanical transport and production engineering at Papua New Guinea University of Technology.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7