AfriCart – a handcart for Africa

ED302 – design & technology

01.0 Context – Defining the problem

two girls carrying water

A Woman’s Load

In Africa, the gender division of transport labour is particularly rigid when it comes to human porterage. Transport of goods by women is predominantly by head-loading, an effort which equates to the adult female carrying a 20kg load over a distance of 1.4-5.3 km every day.
[WORLD BANK REPORT: Findings – Africa Region – No. 83 – March 1997]

Where water or harvests are transported on the head or on the back, it is almost exclusively done by women and children. Men will however, transport water on bicycles, or in oxcarts. Numerous studies in Africa indicate that without exception women spend more time on transport activities than men. Being responsible for all domestic activities and making a significant contribution to agricultural tasks, women and children bear the greatest part of the transport burden in SSA.
[WORLD BANK REPORT: Findings – Africa Region – No. 83 – March 1997]

While most rural transport journeys are relatively short and local, they need to be undertaken frequently and absorb significant amounts of time and energy. A typical woman in the Makete area in Tanzania spends over four hours per day on transport tasks. In Beira, Mozambique women spend seven hours per day in transport activities, of which 3.6 hours are spent on the transportation of water and fuelwood. In Ethiopia, household fuel wood demand results in a weekly travel time of 21 hours. Women are responsible for nearly 70% of the time spent on transport and nearly 85% of the effort in sub-Saharan Africa. They account for 70% of agricultural workers, 80% of food producers, 100% of those who process basic foodstuffs and they undertake from 60% to 90% of the marketing.
[Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Document: Women’s role and access to agricultural extension services in Sub-Saharan Africa]

women carrying wood

Detrimental to Health

Carrying heavy loads have a detrimental effect on women’s health. It taxes energy and leads to back problems, knee problems and headaches, especially when using straps to carry loads on the back. It also makes demands on the metabolism that is not addressed by nutritional intake. This is particularly serious for pregnant women. A study in Tanzania found positive correlation between women’s heavy labour contributions and low weights of babies born during periods of peak labour. Low birth weights are a major cause of infant mortality in Tanzania. Load carrying also puts an excessive strain on women’s skeleton, leading to spine deformities and the early onset of arthritic diseases. Sometimes the water carried by girls weighs more than her body weight with the corresponding negative implications for the girl’s health.
[Barbara Gruehl Kipke – Mobility Consultant: Balancing the Load: Making Women Mobile]

Women’s lack of access to transport modes

Gender power relations, social attitudes and beliefs restrict women’s access to means of transport. Women usually have neither the purchasing power to acquire an appropriate means of rural transport such as a bicycle or a Scotch Cart.  Women’s access to appropriate transportation is limited by the first “vehicle” usually being reserved for males and the household not being able to afford further vehicles (similar to the initial motorisation of men in industrialised countries).

Gender disparity begins at childhood. Even where women have access to the use of intermediate means of transport (IMTs) – these include cycles, donkeys and carts and are meant to fill the gap between expensive motor vehicles and tedious human effort – the IMTs are owned and controlled by men. Men in most societies, have cash incomes and access to income generating activities that enable them to control the acquisition and use of these technologies. It has been found that men will invest in reducing women’s transport burdens only if there is a direct benefit to them. In Mbeya, Tanzania, 50% of the male farmers used oxcarts for water and firewood collection for agricultural and other income-generating activities, but women made little use of the carts for water and firewood collection for domestic consumption.
[Barbara Gruehl Kipke – Mobility Consultant: Balancing the Load: Making Women Mobile]

Child labour at home

Most African children work – rural children more than their urban peers. According to studies carried out in certain countries in West Africa, children perform considerable amounts of work even when they attend formal school. Domestic labour demand is also a major reason for school dropout, as illustrated in Ethiopia. Girls are needed for housework while boys are needed on the family farm. Thus, the decision to send a child to school is not only a matter of expense, but also the associated costs of replacing the child labour. Studies from Zimbabwe, Kenya and Benin indicate that girls work more than boys. While most rural children are involved in work activities, quite a few also perform hazardous or strenuous labour. Approximately 9 million girls and 2 million boys in Africa are engaged in this kind of labour in and around their own households.

Around 5 million children engage in paid work in commercial agriculture. The situation is particularly severe during harvest seasons. In Kenya, 30 percent of coffee pickers are children, while 25,000 school children work under hazardous conditions in Tanzanian plantations and mines. Large numbers of boys from Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Ghana, Togo and Benin migrate to work on plantations in Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria, together with refugee children from Liberia and Sierra Leone. The sale, or contracting out, of children is common in several countries, with the latter group being relatively large. Children contracted out, or sold, mainly work in agriculture or as domestic servants, but some are still used in mining and organised begging activities. Domestic service is probably the largest child labour market outside the agricultural sector, where an estimated 85 percent of child domestic servants in Africa are girls.
[WORLD BANK Human Development Report no. 194 – November 2001]

East African Kikuyu and Luo women are just a few examples of people who must carry large loads everyday, and who carry the loads supported by their heads (head-loading). Studies on East African women have shown that they regularly carry loads of up to 20% of their body weight (equivalent to a good size suitcase) on their heads. In extreme circumstances, African women often carry loads equal to 70% of their body weight.
[LOCO – Unit Laboratory of physiology and biomechanics of locomotion: Physiology of load carrying]

Studies focusing on transport patterns in several Sub-Saharan African countries show that women move on average, usually via head loading, 26 metric ton/kilometres a year, especially water and fuel wood, compared with less than 7 metric ton/kilometres for men. This, combined with women’s contribution to agriculture, has led to estimates that women contribute about two-thirds of the total rural transport effort.
[WORLD BANK REPORT: Findings – Africa Region – No. 197 – December 2001]

The absence of wheeled transport necessitates the expenditure of excessive amounts of physical labor, typically as headloading, for any appreciable load carrying. It also severely curtails the amount of weight and volume that can be transported at any one time. This dearth of wheeled transport has had an enormous negative impact on African’s quality of life, on their economic (especially their agricultural) productivity, and on their health. As African women traditionally perform most transport work, the lack of wheeled transport exacerbates prevailing gender inequality, not only adding to women’s burden, but by taking up girl’s time with carrying water and firewood, preventing them from attending school.
Arnold Wendroff, PhD.

Subsistence agriculture is the mainstay of Africa’s economy. It accounts for about 60 percent of the total labour force, 20 percent of total merchandise exports and 17 percent of GDP.
[NEPAD: Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme]

Women in Africa have been dubbed “a hidden growth reserve” as they provide more than half of the region’s labour. In fact, as was extolled in the Bank’s Gender Policy, whereas both women and men play substantial economic roles, much of Africa’s economy is in the hands of women, especially the agricultural and informal sectors.

For example, women work far longer hours than men as their work day may be up to 50 percent longer as their activities within the productive and reproductive sectors are closely intertwined. The gender division of labour entails a combination of farming work, childcare and household duties. According to a recent World Bank study, women perform about 90 per cent of the work of processing food crops and providing household water and fuel-wood; 90 per cent of the work of hoeing and weeding with primitive instruments; 80 per cent of the work of food storage and transportation from farm to village and 60 per cent of the work of harvesting and marketing.
[“Agenda setting and public policy in Africa” Kelechi Amihe Kalu, p171 “The role of women…”.]

As to increasing women’s access to economic development: an example from Mali was that women used to head-load goods between isolated villages and regional towns. However, as roads developed, the owners of animal-drawn carts and motor vehicles (usually men) were able to dominate marketing channels. Unless they had access to road transport (eg, donkey carts) women traders became restricted to village based transactions. Whilst this reduced transport drudgery, it also reduced women’s incomes and independence.
[Ruthven and Koné, 1995]

A project in Ghana sought to solve these problems using a cycle trailer: Women in rural areas in Ghana spend a large percentage of their time and effort on transportation because they have few alternatives to the strenuous practice of headloading. The cycle trailer, conceived as an appropriate technology solution to this problem, failed to meet the needs of its intended users due to socio-economic and religious factors.
[Volume 7, Number 3 of Africa Technology Forum Magazine.]

mother child headloading

Appropriate Tools & Materials

This module is based around the requirement to design and make a product to solve a real need in a real context. The need for this product has been discussed above, however the product must also be modelled within the context of appropriate, and sustainable, technologies & materials available in rural Sub-Saharan Africa.

When I first arrived in Africa it was as a member of an Operation Raleigh team, to Zimbabwe, in 1991. Here I first became aware of the problems posed by Africa’s huge reliance on human labour and the lack of domestic transport.

In urban and semi-urban areas there are a number of creative transport solutions. In urban areas of Southern Africa one of these transport solutions has been the ubiquitous “Scania”. This is the typically humorous name that many Africans give to the system of urban handcarts used to deliver stock and goods such as shopping.

scania in nairobi

These large metal handcarts have become a business model dominated by young adult males who aggressively ply their trade around the urban agricultural markets and large super markets such as “Pick ’n’ Pay” in Botswana and Zambia, and “TM Hyper” in Zimbabwe.

Most urban folk do not own vehicles and taxis are out of their financial reach and so they rely on these young men to move their shopping and household goods all over the city and peri-urban areas.

scania in nairobi2

Most rural folk however, do not own vehicles but the minority do have beasts such as donkeys and cattle, these they harness to carts, commonly known as Scotchcarts, and are used for most day to day transportation chores. As mentioned earlier, these IMT methods are usually male regulated and therefore inaccessible to the working woman and children in the majority of families.


This solution is only available to the more affluent – the poorest rural folk have to carry everything by hand (or “by head”) and this severely limits both volume and speed.

The lack of wheeled transport increases African’s morbidity and mortality. In most subsistence farmsteads, food production is exclusively reliant on manual labour, and production is diminished by the need to expend time and calorific energy on transport, as opposed to agricultural tasks. This in turn contributes to the endemic malnutrition of (Malawian) children.

The lack of wheeled transport means that most African households, rural and urban, obtain their domestic water (for drinking, cooking, and washing) from more or less distant sources, water carried on the heads of women and children in amounts of no more than five gallons at a time.

This requires large energy and time expenditures, and frequently results in an inadequate supply of water for domestic hygiene, resulting in an excess of skin, eye and gastro-intestinal disease, especially in infants and children.

Lack of wheeled transport is (also) responsible for many deaths in medical, especially obstetric emergencies, where no ambulance service is available, and where the patient is too sick to sit on the back of a bicycle.
Arnold Wendroff Ph.D

two women carrying water


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February 16, 2009 at 1:01 pm

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