Why the electric mobility revolution should not bypass Africa’s rural women

When I was 23 and beginning a career in international development, I lived in a rural Zambian village. Like every other household there, I had to walk 2 kilometers to the river for my water supply. Unlike every other household member, I did not know how to carry a 5-liter bucket on my head. I provided the young girls and older women ample supply of entertainment. At least until they kindly taught me the finer points of water lugging.

 I was immensely grateful at that time. But it is a lesson no one should have to learn. Access to water should not require an arduous trek to a river.

Yet, 24 years later it remains the necessity for many rural African women. Why are women still spending so much of their day carrying the heavy burden of walking long distances overloaded with water, firewood or food to feed their family? My conclusion is simple and unscientific: The men, who had plenty of time to sit when I lived among them while the women fetched the water, raised the children, prepared the meals and toiled the field, had no incentive to alter the status quo. And the women had no extra time to innovate.

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Mobility is critical to development. Long distances to health facilities increase women’s and children’s mortality. Long walks to school force children to drop out. Harvested crops rot before they reach a market. Hours are wasted collecting water, and new economic opportunities are missed. Even though these impacts are well understood, mobility remains neglected in Africa. Lack of affordable transport and road infrastructure is an enormous barrier for millions of people globally to access social services; it stunts economic growth and reinforces social isolation and gender inequality.

 According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 80 percent of farmland in sub Saharan Africa is managed by smallholders (up to 10 hectares of field) and almost 50 percent of them are women. The FAO estimates that with more productive resources, women farmers could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent, which would then lift-up to 150 million people out of hunger. Smallholders provide up to 80 percent of the food supply in sub Saharan Africa.

 Roads alone do not solve the problem. Availability of transport is also critical. While there has been investment in building roads, there is still a huge network of rural areas that depend on gravel roads that are not serviced by regular and reliable transport. Studies indicate that more than half of the untapped potential for cultivation in sub Saharan Africa is located more than six hours from a major market, and less than 40 percent of rural Africans live within 2 kilometers of an all-season road—by far the lowest level of rural accessibility in the developing world. This means rural farmers suffer a huge cost in both time and finances to take their goods to market.[1]

 Bicycles have provided some relief. But they are not ideal for juggling heavy loads or children. Motorbikes are also inadequate for fetching water, transporting children or transporting a harvest. The second-hand cars that have flooded the cities have increased the possibility of car ownership for the aspiring middle-class households but are out of reach for smallholder farmers.

 Private passenger vans service the rural and urban routes in many areas of southern Africa, charging a fee per rider. Buses cover routes town to town.  Motorbike taxis and small tuktuks imported from India are common in urban areas in East Africa.

So how could the women of subSaharan Africa innovate to reduce their level of poverty? In China, rural mobility has been a critical factor in raising incomes and enabling access to bigger markets. The utility of small electric bicycles and tricycles has transformed the way people live and work.

 Across the country, small-scale farmers and businesspeople are using electric cycles to better reach consumers and needed services. They are reducing the time and cost of moving goods and people. Tricycles are helping women gain independence and reduce workloads. They are easy to use and carry children. And they are cleaner for the environment than petrol-powered options.

While African leaders now plot out continental transport routes to grow internal trade and commerce and seek assistance from the Chinese government to build highways and high-speed railways, the smallholder farmers—the backbone of subSaharan African agriculture—appear to remain neglected. With the revolution in renewable energy, especially electric transport, there is no reason that the world’s poorest people should be bypassed.

The time has come for a true poverty revolution in rural Africa. Affordable transport can deliver that goal. With the cost of renewable technology dramatically falling, new breakthroughs in electric batteries and with mobile technology making microfinancing options available to rural populations, community-based distribution systems can put an electric bicycle in every rural household. Electric wheels can take women and their families to new levels of self-sufficiency. 

 I recently left the United Nations work to return to Africa to pay back the water-fetching lesson I was given so long ago. I want to help make women’s lives a bit easier and healthier by giving them a key to poverty-reducing mobility.

With dedicated partners who believe in the cause and bring great talent, I have registered our start-up in Zimbabwe. The plan is to pilot a model with small-scale farmers that demonstrates the potential of electric cycles through community-based distribution.

 After initial door knocking and without a big NGO brand, I realize it is tough to attract investors interested in rural African women. To get the cycles rolling with a pilot project in January 2019, we have launched a crowdsourcing campaign. We intend to send our first shipment of electric tricycles by mid-October.

While progress may not be as fast as I would like, I know that, for the millions of women in rural Africa, the potential for making their lives a little less arduous and the trek to the river a little easier is worth the perseverance.

[1] Claudia N. Berg, Brian Blankespoor and Harris Selod: Roads and Rural Development in SubSaharan Africa, Washington, D.C., 2016.