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Plycycle

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 by Mick Allan

I discovered the African Bicycle Design Contest through Bicycle Design Blog recently. Unfortunately I discovered it too late to qualify for entry but I did have a good old think about the subject. Regular readers will be familiar with my Kona Africa Bike and my on-going efforts to make it a more useful machine.

We lived in Africa when I was a child; my father worked as an engineer in Malawi for many years and I remember vividly the big old-fashioned black Raleigh roadsters which were the bike of choice for well off Malawians. With heavy components, single speed transmissions and woeful rod-brakes the only real performance feature was their durability. Raleigh has long since been elbowed out of the market by cheaper Chinese manufacturers but the 100 year old technology has hardly changed. Bicycles have moved on substantially since I was a lad but most African cyclists are still lumbered with those heavy old tanks.

To a rural African the value of a bicycle cannot be overstated. When school, market, the next village or even the water supply might be several hours walk away, ownership of a bicycle can transform a life. Many cycle folk recognise this and work tirelessly to supply bikes to Africans. We’ve discussed the Kona Africa Bike Project at some length but there are very many more dedicated people and organisations working to populate Africa with bikes. Depending on the individual project these include new bikes¬† (such as the Kona Africa Bike) and schemes which deliver unwanted pre-owned bikes. To my knowledge there is no bicycle factory in Africa, every bicycle from each of these programmes is shipped in.

At the core of the African Bicycle Design Contest is a subtly different approach. The contest organisers invited designers to submit ideas and visions for affordable and sustainable bicycle designs ; ‘Important criteria for the submissions were¬†the usefulness in the African context, innovative aspects in design and manufacturing and market feasibility. Another very important criterion is the sustainability – durability of the design, possibility for local manufacturing, utilisation of local available and sustainable materials‘ (my italics). This is an invitation, not just to start from first principles from a design point of view but to actually create the seed of an African bicycle manufacturing industry.

(It’s been done before with wheelchairs. In 1980something I was working in a London bike shop when a guy came in in a wheel chair and had me fit a pair of protective discs to his wheels. He was about to embark on a journey to India. Twelve years later I was working in a Bristol bike shop when he came in (sporting the same wheel discs). This time around he was director of a charity; Motivation, which works to improve the quality of life of people with mobility impairment. One of the ways they do this is by designing and making affordable wheelchairs for people in developing countries. Motivation now produces wheelchairs from local materials in 17 countries and to date 25,000 wheelchair users world-wide have benefited from his endeavours.)

So. A local bike for local people. There’s a complex set of parameters to consider including fairly straight-forward stuff such as what the range of sizes should be, how many gears, what frame materials and methods of construction. Specifics about how will it be used and therefore what individual features should it have and then more complex considerations; from a spare parts perspective should it use component standards which are already commonly available locally or start with a clean sheet? Should it all be wholly manufactured locally or assembled locally from shipped-in kits? Most importantly (when my local supermarket can sell a ‘full suspension’ mountain bike shaped object for less than the cost of a tank of petrol) how do you design a bike to be useful, durable and yet inexpensive enough for an African wage.

Well I’ve had a think. Furtling my own Africa Bike has been a useful exercise for this and I think I’ve come up with a pretty good design. Modular, versatile, tough and inexpensive. Think plywood sandwich. The Plycycle! (rhymes with bicycle)

Rubbish sketches to follow.

George would like to point out that this is a vast improvement over the original sketch and that it should *not* therefore be labelled "rubbish"

Keep your eye on that competition, I’m really looking forward to seeing the winning entry.

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