Moving on up

Going high-tech isn't always the answer to rural transport problems. Sometimes the way forward lies with simple yet sustainable solutions.

First Published in

Imagine Charlize Theron pulling up outside the Oscars in a chauffeur-driven donkey cart… It would be the ultimate Hollywood statement about modes of transport. For South Africa's most successful movie star, using the cart would be no more than an attention-grabbing option designed to highlight her own awareness of global issues, and Africa's in particular. Yet for the majority of South Africans, non-motorised transport is not a choice - it's an everyday necessity.

Although 80% of South Africans depend on public transport, more than 60% of rural households in South Africa say that motorised public transport is not available to them or too far away to access. Of the almost 16 million South African children who travel to school every day, about 12 million walk. About 550 000 kids spend more than two hours a day walking to and from their places of learning.

These are just some of the pressing facts contained in a National Travel Survey undertaken by the National Department of Transport in 2005. The delivery of rural transport services can be a significant catalyst for sustainable economic development, improved social access and poverty alleviation in South Africa's rural areas. Which is why the Department of Transport has developed a national strategy for rural transport to guide the delivery of infrastructure and services.

Even though we live in a high-tech age, there's still ample reason to focus on non-motorised rural transport. In the outlying areas, a donkey cart is as valuable as a Porsche. And if design is a response to a need, then it needs to meet the challenges faced by both the moneyed urban market AND developing communities. After all, half of South Africa's population resides in cities and the other 50% lives in rural areas. Of this country's rural population, 72% is poor and therefore unable to afford more sophisticated forms of transportation. The national statistics not only serve to highlight the plight of developing communities, they show the significant potential for low-cost mobility solutions - design solutions, in other words.

In 2002, the North West Provincial government decided to develop… not a solar-powered car, nor an electric motorcycle, but… a donkey cart! This move created an immediate awareness of the extent of the challenges involved. It also became clear that the country could benefit if designers were involved.

An Interdesign workshop was held to address the whole issue of rural transport in South Africa. Usually hosted by an ICSID member society, Interdesign is a forum in which designers from different countries and cultures work together with local experts for an intensive two-week period, exploring design issues of national, regional and global importance.

Ultimately, the solutions that these designers come up with should be implemented to make a real difference to the region in which the Interdesign has taken place. The emphasis is on understanding local cultures and actively engaging local communities in helping to find meaningful, realistic answers. In the past, Interdesign workshops have looked at issues like the production and distribution of bread and the design of urban squares, a forum which was held in the USSR in 1971, or transportation for the future, held in Sweden in 1994.

Interdesign 2005, with its theme of "Sustainable rural transport - technology for developing countries" took place in Rustenburg in the North West Province of South Africa from 3 to 16 April 2005, and was orchestrated in conjunction with the SABS Design Institute. Over this two-week period a total of 70 designers from 15 countries gave of their time and design capabilities. Group leaders and participants were a mix of mid-career specialists and students, both local and international, as well as local skills-based designers.

The main objective of this workshop was to use focused design projects to provide solutions to various problems facing developing communities. Involving rural communities in the area, and using local manufacturing facilities and materials, the designers worked in groups focusing on animal-drawn carts, alternative modes of transport, bicycles and tricycles, as well as communication with the communities. All of the groups had a group leader at the helm and the entire process was co-ordinated by design director, Bart Verveckken, head of the department of Industrial Design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Designers visited the villages of Mathopestat, Syferbult and Pitsedisulejang to acquaint themselves with the environment and experience the needs of the communities first-hand. Issues they encountered included the role of women in the community, the expectations of learners, the lack of public transport and the need for transportation to medical facilities. One of the features of this process was the fact that all the groups returned to the community time and again to see if they were still on track. In the end they came up with some results that are bound to fast-track rural transport systems:

Animal-drawn carts

Focusing specifically on the very donkey cart that led to Interdesign 2005 in the first place, this group worked side by side with five artisans from Kuruman (a rural area west of the location) who make donkey carts for a living.

Eventually, they developed a low-capacity cart that would use one or two donkeys and carry up to two people or a small load, as well as a high-capacity cart for up to six people or a heavier load. "We were struck by the fact that donkey carts were considered un-cool and not much fun by the younger members of the communities we visited. It was a challenge to use design to change these perceptions," says group leader Chris Brandnum, a lecturer at the Industrial Design School of the University of Johannesburg.

Paying specific attention to animal welfare, the designers also found new and cheaper ways to make harnesses in consultation with the NSPCA who tested the harnesses in the field.

Bicycles and tricycles

This group came up against resistance towards tricycles, but through consultation and explanation, the community became very interested in these vehicles.

"Through the use of sketches, the problems were identified and boundaries defined," explains group leader Roelf Mulder, managing director of …XYZ, an industrial design company in Cape Town.

The designers eventually focused on a woman's bike (that offers water-carrying capacity and comfortable seating), a kid's bike (focused on cost and reliability), a combination bike (a static mainframe bike that had to be reliable, aesthetically pleasing and affordable) and a load-bearing tricycle that combines affordability and stability, can carry water, people and goods and is easily maintained.

Alternative modes of transport

Concerned with the empowerment of women, this group focused on the movement of goods, firewood and water, using simple designs that could preferably be made in the village. They developed a low-tech mini-rail and cable-way for conveying goods over a mid-range distance, and eventually they came up with designs for a trolley, a stretcher (that could be used to carry the sick and elderly to and from clinics over rough terrain), and other alternatives which would support community women in their daily lives.

Going forward

On the final day of the forum, Interdesign and the Department of Transport met in order to decide on 19 preferred design concepts that would be developed into prototypes. During May and June the South African industrial design students who had participated in the initial workshop refined these concepts as part of their semester work. They then built the first prototypes, which were tested within the communities during September.

These exciting, life-enhancing prototypes will be on a "touchy-feely" display at the Design Indaba Expo in February 2006, where you'll be able to try them out for yourself. They then form part of the World Velo Mondial Conference 2006 (, which runs from 5-10 March in Cape Town and involves 35 countries that believe that the bicycle can take us all towards prosperity. Of course, the most important move of all would be to see these prototypes go into a full-scale production cycle…