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Bandha Bikes Site Visit – Uganda

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Two weeks in Uganda was a short amount of time to try to accomplish so much. Time takes on a different shape there, moving with the flow of the natural day. Even though the days flew by, the overall pace of life was slower. Everything is on African time – about two hours late on average – and people operate in a more relaxed manner. They speak gently and thoughtfully, unless they’re arguing, in which case all bets are off. They saunter rather than speed-walk, and take the time to formally greet one other before jumping into business. It’s a lifestyle that inherently counters my typical behavior, and has taught me patience and the art of enjoying life in the present.

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I was in Uganda representing Vort Port International’s (VPI) Bandha (bamboo in Lugandan) Bicycle Project, which works to train local villagers how to build, maintain, and sell the bamboo bicycles to people in and around Uganda. The team’s project director, Song Nguyen, had performed the first site visit last June, and I was there performing a follow up visit to solidify pilot locations, answer questions for the project, and continue to gain feedback. Bamboo is an abundant, locally-grown, and strong resource that can replace traditional steel bicycle frames. Most of these steel bicycles are secondhand from China or Japan, and are sold at relatively high costs compared to the average Ugandan income. Because of this, the local economy for these bicycles has limited room for growth, and many people, especially the vulnerable and needy, don’t have access to a much-needed form of transportation (for the majority of Ugandans, walking is their sole means of transportation.)  Because of the lower material costs associated with frame construction, bamboo bicycles will sell for less than that of steel bikes.  This will increase access to the product and, enables children to get to school , families to fetch water more conveniently, and increases commerce to increase by using the bicycles to transport goods, thereby empowering communities to succeed. Additionally, training and hiring Ugandans to build, sell, and grow the project will stimulate the local economy and promote Ugandan-made goods that can be sold and even exported, rather than relying on the costly and unreliable second-hand import market. Being able to talk to villagers, women, and students around Uganda about this project has been exciting and further strengthened my enthusiasm  for Bandha Bicycles’ vision.
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My first stop  in Uganda was the village of Lukaya in the Kalungu District, half way between the capital, Kampala, and the western border of Uganda. There, I met with George, the director of Tree of Life Ministries,  and several headmasters of Mustard Seed Academy, an incredible boarding school founded by Elaine and Joe Griswold, two amazing people who VPI is fortunate to be partnering with. This school offers not only education, but also housing to orphans and other students in need. I visited the students and the community, as well as local sites for bamboo sources, and discussed the project with local leaders. Sean, a volunteer contractor for the school, was extremely helpful and hospitable, and shared some of the challenges and rewards of working in this community with me.

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Visiting the Mustard School was an amazing experience. I was greeted by the students announcing “you are most welcome,” in unison when I walked into each classroom. They then showed me some of their notes, all written in great detail — because of the lack of textbook availability for the students, their notes essentially were their textbooks. There was a wide age range of students–from 13 year olds learning advanced geometry and trigonometry all the way to three year olds writing short sentences. It was hard to believe that until the school was founded a few years ago, many of these kids were living on the street. They were bright and curious, and their spirits matched their intellect.

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I even had the opportunity to teach a mini-course to the secondary (high school) students who will eventually be trained through their vocational and service learning course on how to build the bamboo bicycles. When I asked them if they believed that bamboo could be used as a bicycle frame, they all replied (again in unison), “Yes, Ms. Walker”. One of the main challenges that the team has faced is convincing Ugandans that bamboo can, in fact, be a suitable substitute for steel or other bicycle frame materials. To have the students all agree that they do believe that bamboo could be used  was music to my ears. They all seemed eager to learn new skills — in response to the question of who would like to eventually be a bike builder, every single child raised their hand in the room. Perhaps it was just the overall excitement of the day, or the presence of a foreigner, but I genuinely felt that the students wanted to participate. Overall, I was beyond impressed by the caliber of students studying here, as well as the quality of their work.

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After leaving Lukaya, I then made my way to Jinja, a beautiful, quaint, and bustling town where I was based for the remainder of the trip. There, I first met with Sharon, the director of VPI’s partner organization Arise and Shine Uganda, to go over the questions I reviewed with all of the Ugandan partner organizations. We then took a day-long journey toward Kibuye, the village where she is from and now works, to discuss the project. We stopped at a bamboo farm and a couple village centers along the way to speak with local communities about the progress of the project, gain feedback, answer questions, and discuss next steps. People had insightful questions and concerns.
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Will the bicycles be able to handle the conditions in Uganda? How can I be assured that you’re going to come back? When will you be back? These communities have worked with previous development organizations that came in to do some work, or make false promises, and then deserted them. While people were excited, they seemed skeptical of development in general.  Still, I sensed  that they trusted us more than  other organizations,  because when we said that we’d come back, we kept our word.

The following day, I went to meet with Kats and the members of Nansana Children’s Center (NCC) in Kampala, another partner

photo 9organization. NCC works with youth and single mothers in Kampala linking single mothers with educational resources and materials for thier children and linking families with other community resources so they can thrive, regardless of income. They currently have a small primary school program at their facility and are looking to eventually build a larger school, as well as other buildings to support their work.    After introducing the Bandha Bikes program to Kats and the other board members, I spoke with the single mothers that are part of the NCC program. They were very keen to know what it would take to be part of the Bandha Bikes project.
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We also ran through sample lesson plans on resource mobilization and gender equality which would be offered to participants of the program along with the technical bicycle workshops. The lesson plans were well received, but their perception of gender equality startled me because of the stark cultural differences.  However, after running through a high-level version of the lesson plan, the group responded very positively to the  class, saying that it was applicable and opened their eyes. I have the Bandha Bikes team to thank for their thoughtfulness in developing the lesson. Although I was uncomfortable in the situation, the lesson gave useful statistics and posed intriguing questions that challenged traditional thinking. Overall, the project aims to not only provide bicycles, but help educate on some of the underlying social issues and provide some context to address these issues so that the bicycles can  help empower women and girls in the community.

The next day, I met with three wonderful individuals – Amos, Moses, and Brian – all of whom have been doing social work  with the local community and teaching villagers how to make jewelry out of bamboo. They showed me how their work  is already making a difference in the villagers’ lives, and that the community members they work with highly respect them. I arrived by boda boda (riding on the back of a motorcycle) to Lwanda, and was happily received by a large group of women yipping and yelping sounds of joy. I was told that these sounds reflect their excitement and joy for the project’s presence.  We talked for a bit, and then set off to round up more people for a larger meeting at the center meeting place dubbed “the Office.” Approximately 40 villagers, primarily women, attended,

photo 11and they were attentive and asked great questions that reflected more of their concerns about development and whether there was assurance that we’d be back. Again, I could not promise anything but explained that the team was there a year ago and promised to return, and we had. After this, they seemed to open up more and responded with more yips of joy. I couldn’t help but smile when looking into their eyes — the happiness of hope lit up their faces. They got a kick out of watching the Bandha Bikes video that the media team assembled, and couldn’t wait for the bike to be in their communities.

 The main thing that resonated between all of the communities that I visited was the overwhelming answer to the simple series of questions I posed to each one:

1) Do you have a bicycle?  For the majority the answer was no, and if yes, it was typically used by the lead male of the family.  photo 12

2) If not, why? “They are too expensive.”

3) How would that help your lives? “They would provide increased access to health care, water, school, and the ability to perform jobs that would improve our livelihoods.”

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With this overwhelming agreement about the potential and demand for bamboo bicycles,  it is now our turn to do our best to meet this demand, and work with our amazing partners in Uganda to provide this simple, but life-changing technology.

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For more information on the Banda Bikes project click here.

Written by Merry Walker, Co-founder and Executive Director of Vort Port International

VPI’s EmpoweRun 5K Raises Awareness, Money and a Few Heart Rates

Vort Port International (VPI) volunteers have traveled to the far reaches of the earth — rural villages in India, the jungles of Uganda, the island nation of Madagascar — but early on a brisk Saturday morning in March many found themselves in what was, at least for them, new territory: Washington DC’s Rock Creek Park.

On March 2, 2013, VPI hosted its first 5K race/walk. Dubbed the “EmpoweRun”, the event saw 118 runners make their way through a 3.1 mile looped course of wooded trail by Rock Creek in the heart of Washington DC.

“I had a really great time. It was my first time running in a few weeks due to an injury, and I wasn’t sure whether I could drag myself out my warm bed so early on a Saturday. Really glad I did though — thank you for organizing this!” said participant Kathleen Coffey.

And runner Alvin Chen had this to say about the race: “I did my first 5K ever today and wanted to thank you all for a great event. Plus I learned a lot about VPI’s mission. Great work all around.”

The overall winner was Chip Daymude of Washington, DC, finishing with a speedy time of 18:33. Kate Norberg, also of Washington, DC, was the first woman to cross the finish line with a time of 23:17.

Several VPI volunteers participated as well, including Media Director, and first time 5K runner, Patrick Kwiatkowski, whose “rigorous” — and hopefully inspiring — training was documented in a series of humorous videos.

“When I realized that communities living below the poverty line abroad might benefit from my feeble attempt at some exercise — how could I resist? Every cramp and sore I might suffer is worth the chance to lift impoverished communities up with smart, sustainable technologies and practices — an easy price to pay,” said Kwiatkowski.

A series of signs along the course such as “You have just run half of the distance it takes for Ugandan children to go to school. You’re halfway there!” and, at the two mile mark, “You have just run half the distance it takes for women in Africa and Asia to gather water. Water ahead!” helped let runners know how far they had run, as well as remind them why they were running in the first place.

Post-race participants enjoyed drinks, snacks and an upbeat playlist of songs while cheering on the finishers that continued to roll in until just under the 58-minute mark.

The EmpoweRun raised more than $2,000 towards supporting VPI’s projects, which help further the development and distribution of technologies that provide basic needs such as sanitation, transportation, light and clean water in high-need areas of the world.

VPI would like to thank our sponsors Pacers Running Store, ING Financial Partners, Pepsi and Chamane Energy Drink; raceDC Timing for timing the event and all the runners and volunteers who came out to support the inaugural race.

Photos and results from the EmpoweRun can be found here.

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

Woman of Uganda: A Banda Bikes Assessment

Even though it was back in June, I still remember the familiar smell of burnt charcoal that filled my lungs as I stepped off plane and reacquainted myself with the beautiful land of Uganda.  It had been over a year, but I was finally back.   After a 27 hour journey, including a 12 hour layover in rainy London, the boldness of the Ugandan landscape was ever more stunning.  The lush leaves of the trees, the vibrant greens of the grass, and the incredible shades of reds and browns that blended into the soil all reminded me why Uganda is called “Africa’s Pearl”.   Upon arriving in Entebbe International Airport, I searched for my name in the sea of hand-written, cardboard signs welcoming the arriving passengers.   Through my blurred delirium of exhaustion, I finally found a sign that read: “We Welcome Song”. Jackson, my driver, greeted me with a smile that seemed all too familiar.  Of course!  Jackson was the same man who drove me from the airport just one year before.   But this time we weren’t strangers, and we happily caught up with our lives as we drove the 2 hour road to Jinja, Uganda.

With only seven days in-country to conduct a feasibility assessment for Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project, I made the best of the little things that would have otherwise driven me crazy – the scorching heat, the lack of clean drinking water, and most of all the aggressive mosquitos.   Those trivial things didn’t matter this time.   I was here for Banda Bikes, a Vort Port project which aims to train local Ugandans to build and sell their own bicycles constructed from locally-sourced bamboo.  Through these bicycles the endeavor hopes to provide disadvantaged populations, particularly women, with greater access to food, water, employment, education, healthcare, and ultimately a greater quality of life.   But in a country that continues to face strict gender norms, such that women are frowned upon for riding bicycles in some regions, implementing this project does not come without its fair share of obstacles.   Still, the benefits of providing bicycles to a community are astronomical, including the potential to increase a household income by 35% or more. [i]

Lukaya Village. Tree of Life Ministries school performance.

Throughout the 4 schools, 4 community-based organizations, and 8 village centers visited, every day was a new adventure.   While in Kibuye Village with Sharon Nyanjura, founder and director of Arise and Shine Uganda, community members shared their dreams of one day learning to build their own bicycles through the project.   Over and over again, the voices of villagers were translated to me, “we are here for you, we will be waiting for your return”.   Although words between us were rarely exchanged directly, our long glances to one another shared the same message, webale (thank you, in the local language).   “Thank you for allowing me into your community”, something I would think to myself throughout my entire journey.

With the support of Real Partners Uganda and Trees of Life Ministries in Lukaya, Uganda, I met brilliant students who shared their dreams of being doctors, lawyers, nurses, pilots, and teachers.   Among them was Iesha, who recognized the value of a bicycle.   She shared with me, “a bicycle is important to me because everywhere I can use a bicycle.  If I had a bicycle, I would use it to fetch water.”  Iesha was one of many female students at Trees of Life Ministries who could envision the asset of a bicycle in her life, despite the opposing gender norms of females riding bicycles in the surrounding community.

For decades it has been recognized by USAID and organizations alike, that women are a force that can transform an entire community.  We also recognize that “countries and companies will thrive if women are educated and engaged as fundamental pillars of the economy”. [ii]   Women continue to have incredible influences on their families and communities, both in developing and industrialized countries, yet the gender gap in equality persists around the globe, including Uganda. [iii]   With the hope of addressing gender inequality with the Banda Bikes project, the voices of women throughout the villages became louder than ever.

Song meeting with the women of Lwanda Village.

In Wakiso District with Katongole Issa of Nansana Children’s Center, I met a single-mother, Fausta.   With her husband having passed away years ago, she is now burdened with raising four children on her own.  With Fausta as the sole financial provider for her children, every day is a struggle.   In a small room which served as the living room, bedroom, and dining room for the entire family of five, I sat with Fausta as she shared her many hardships.   When sales at her potato stand are low, she may make as little as $0.42 a day (US currency), which is the entire cost of her journey back home.  On those rough days, Fausta brings no income home to support her family.

Despite my familiarity with living conditions in the developing world no article, textbook, or lecture can ever prepare someone for the pain and emotion evoked in the eyes of one who actually lives it.   It took a good measure of effort not to shed tears for Fausta as she shared her daily struggles with me.   Fausta reminds me of my own mother and the challenges she faced raising me and my two siblings alone.   Still, two words make the difference between Fausta’s story and that of my mother’s – Government Assistance.  For Fausta, and single-mothers like her, government assistance is a rarity in Uganda, almost non-existent.  I asked myself, “who is here to help these women?”  Across the globe the majority of those living on less than $1 a day are women, regardless of hours worked.   The opportunities for women to earn a living consistently fall short of their male counterparts. [iv], [v]

Nevertheless, as Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project further develops, we have in mind the amazing women throughout our partnering communities.  The project will continue to recognize the gender gap and aim to create opportunities for women to learn about, be involved, and eventually build their own bicycles just like their male neighbors.   Until our next visit to Uganda, I will remember fondly the children at Trees of Life Ministries who shared with me their aspirations, and the inspiring people in Lukaya who are waiting for our return.  But most of all, I will often think about Fausta and her beautiful children who remain resilient through their daily struggles, happy and hopeful to have learned about Banda Bikes. The Ugandan communities have helped me recognize the incredible opportunity that exists when local people are provided with support to make a difference in their own communities.  It is their motivation, endless hope, and inspiration which continue to drive Banda Bikes and the people of Vort Port International.  Until my next visit – webale.

Nansana Town. Song with Fausta, children, and friends.

This blog post was written by Song Nguyen, a member of Vort Port International and the project director for Banda Bikes.


[i] Sieber, N. Appropriate transport and rural development in Makete district, Tanzania. Journal of Transport Geography, 6(1). 1998.

[ii] Hausmann, R., Tyson, L., Zahidi, S. The global gender gap report 2011: Insight report. World Economic Forum.  Available at:  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2011.pdf.

[iii] USAID. Gender equality and women’s empowerment. Retrieved from: http://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment.

[iv] Murray, A. F. From Outrage to Courage. Common Courage Press. Monroe, ME; 1998.

[v] United Nations. Gender and Human Development. Human Development Report. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1995/chapters/.

Connecting Sustainable Transportation and Access to Clean Water

Our global population has already hit almost 7 billion, and is expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades. Consequently, one vital source of life has been and will continue to be compromised: water. Our global water system has been impaired by heavy industrial and agricultural use, ineffective water management systems, and inadequate infrastructure for rainwater harvesting. These trends, along with global climate change, will lead to major challenges in meeting the world’s water demands both in developing and developed countries. Specifically, climate change is exacerbating the issue of water scarcity and clean water. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and changes in humidity, salinity, and wind have been linked to poor water quality and an increase in waterborne pathogens.

It has become apparent that water scarcity and access to clean water is one of the most important challenges that developing countries, such as Uganda, face. In fact, the UN’s seventh millennium development goal (MDG) includes “revers[ing] the loss of environmental resources” and “reduc[ing] by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 2.6 billion people or 50% of the developing world lack access to a basic “improved” latrine which inhibits sanitation, and 1.1 billion people lack access to a source of clean drinking water. 80% of those lacking access to safe drinking water reside in rural areas.  As a result, morbidity and mortality rates are increasing; approximately 1.6 million people die due to diarrheal diseases and other waterborne diseases (e.g., cholera) due to limited access to clean water and sanitation. 90% of the 1.6 million people are children under the age of 5.

The problem of access to clean water is evident in the target village of VPI’s Bamboo Bike’s project: Kibuye Village, Uganda. The village is located in the Kamuli District in North Eastern Kamuli on the shores of the Victoria Nile. Kibuye has an estimated population of 60,000 people. Their livelihood is dependent on subsistence farming and barter trade within the village.  VPI’s potential partner organization, Arise and Shine Uganda, has documented the problems of villagers through a blog for the past couple of years.  Arise and Shine Uganda is a non-profit organization based in Jinja, Uganda focused on sustainable development through education.  As I read through the numerous entries written by various members of Arise and Shine recounting their own experiences, one message was consistent throughout: the people of the village have very little access to water and electricity.  A member wrote in December 2011: “The conditions in the village were very basic, as was to be expected.  There was no running water or electricity, and thus no sewage or apparent irrigation systems.”  Another member noted recently in March 2012 that there was “no water and no power” when they visited Kibuye, and said that they went to a well to get water.  Arise and Shine has really highlighted the source of the problem: the village initially relied on one public borehole for clean drinking water.  However, with just one source of water for 60,000 people, long lines would form everyday by villagers so they could provide clean water for their families.  Naturally, many grew tired of waiting, and turned to the nearby Nile for water, which only resulted in diarrheal and waterborne illnesses.  Furthermore, Arise and Shine noted that the village has one school with just two classrooms, accommodating around 600 children.  Children who get sick from unsafe drinking water are likely to miss school, which cause them to fall behind their peers.  This is partially reflective of the staggering statistic Arise and Shine reported: 80% of Ugandans over the age of 15 are illiterate.

In June, members from Vort Port International (VPI), including myself, will be traveling to Jinja, Uganda to conduct a feasibility assessment for VPI’s Bamboo Bike’s project. Last summer, VPI’s very own Project Lead, Song Nguyen, went to Jinja and worked with Restless Development, conducting research on youth-friendly sexual reproductive health services.  During her time in Jinja, she also volunteered with Arise and Shine.  From interacting with local community members for 6 weeks, Song found that most people in many districts of Uganda lack access to transportation.  In fact, one community member specifically mentioned to Song that a bike would prove extremely useful for their daily needs. When Song returned to the US, she was determined to provide her friends and local community members in Ugandan villages with a sustainable source of transportation.  Inspired by her experiences, she created the Bamboo Bikes project under VPI. This project is focused on empowering local community members in Uganda to build and sell bamboo bikes to others in their community, meanwhile providing greater access to basic resources through their bicycles.  The project will improve the business acumen of Ugandans, help them to gain practical skills, and ultimately develop a sustainable business.  Moreover, the bike itself will provide Ugandans with an environmentally friendly mode of transportation.  The bike may serve to improve their economic opportunity, increase their access to healthcare, increase their mobility enabling them travel to nearby cities to explore other opportunities and expand their businesses, and increase their access to basic necessities, including water.

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Song Nguyen visiting with in-school youth in rural Uganda.

It is clear that access to clean water is critical for the people of Kibuye Village, and many others across Uganda.  Efforts to create sustainable, affordable, effective, and applicable solutions to this problem are needed across Uganda and much of the developing world.  The benefits of investing in the problem outweighs the costs; WHO estimates that meeting MDG goal 7 could prevent 470,000 deaths attributed to lack of clean drinking water and sanitation, and could result in an extra 320 million productive working days every year.  For the children and families of Kibuye, this could mean a better education due to more consistent attendance, improved literacy, a greater ability to compete with their peers in their own district and in nearby urban areas such as Jinja, and allowing both women and men to lead more productive lives. Most importantly, it would mean children will have a greater chance of survival, lead healthier lives, and will be more likely to see their futures through.  It is our duty to help empower others to obtain what is their human right: access to water, sanitation, transportation, and education, among others. It is my hope that VPI can play an integral part in empowering the people of Kibuye, starting with providing villagers with access to transportation.  Moreover, as women and sometimes children are typically responsible for fetching water for their families and spend considerable time doing so, they may find the bikes useful for finding other sources of clean water that may not have been accessible otherwise. Bamboo bikes may also allow them to more easily transport water back to their families.  Most importantly, villagers may no longer need to rely as much on the unsafe waters of the Nile to fetch water for their families, which has been detrimental to the health of so many.

VPI’s members have started to brainstorm ways to successfully address clean water issues at our project sites, including Kibuye. The technologies for improving access to clean water that have already been developed seem endless; the key to success is implementation. VPI’s trip to Kibuye in June will allow us to better understand the problems that these villagers face, and develop and implement culturally sound, applicable, and affordable solutions to the challenges they face every day.

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To learn more about VPI’s Bamboo Bikes Project please visit: www.vortport.org/our-projects/bamboo-bikes, and check out pictures of the bikes our members have designed and constructed on VPI’s facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/vortport).  If you would like to get involved with VPI’s projects or have any questions, please feel free to contact me at shivangi@vortport.org.

The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.” — Helen Keller

Shivangi Khargonekar, the author of this blog post, is the Internal Director of Vort Port International. Shivangi recently graduated with a Master of Public Health in Environmental Health from Emory University. She will be joining Deloitte Consulting as a full-time consultant in their federal practice; she will be a consultant for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shivangi currently resides in Atlanta, GA.

Patz, J.A., et al. (2000). The Potential Health Impacts of Climate Variability and Change for the United States: Executive Summary of the Report of the Health Sector of the U.S. National Assessment. Environmental Health Perspectives. 108(4): 367-376.

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability. United Nations Development Programme website. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://web.undp.org/mdg/goal7.shtml

Health through safe drinking water and basic sanitation. (2012). World Health Organization website.  Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/mdg1/en/index.html

Arise and Shine Uganda. (2012). Arise and Shine Blog. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://www.ariseandshineug.blogspot.com/

Koolwal, Gayatri and Dominique van de Walle. Access to water, women’s work and child outcomes. (2010).  World Bank website. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://water.worldbank.org/publications/access-water-womens-work-and-child-outcomes

Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge

This past Saturday was a crazy one, and I’m not just speaking in terms of Michigan Football. Though the Wolverines fell a touch short, Saturday was still a great and productive day. Waking up at 6:30 to make the drive out to Kalamazoo, Michigan was not the best way to start the day, but a few cups of coffee and an hour and a half of driving later Jay, Zhewei and I arrived onto Western Michigan University’s campus and were ready to represent Bamboo Bikes, Uganda. Bamboo Bikes, Uganda is a bamboo bikes project aimed at promoting sustainability through materials selection and clean transportation while being socially driven with a goal of providing bike transportation in Uganda. The Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge (MiCEVC) skill building day was extremely helpful and Bamboo Bikes, Uganda was able to get some great feedback as well as identify action items we need to accomplish in order to progress our idea into a full fledged business. With 14 teams consisting of a total of 70 people there were certainly ideas aplenty. Teams with projects ranging from energy consumption savings with fuel injection and efficient lighting, to farming and fishing sustainability presented their ideas and businesses.

After a brief introduction of the teams we dove right into working. The first activity was a business blueprint. We covered the paper in sticky notes and really identified who our target customer was within a particular segment, what key resources we had and how we could separate ourselves from competitors with a unique value proposition. We then did some customer discovery with other teams to find out if we were really addressing the correct problem. Our initial price point came into question as we wanted to utilize the sustainable materials and foreign aid aspects of the project. If we are able to reach price parody with current bikes and still offer these great extras then we could truly have a game changing idea on our hands. As the day wound down we gained insight into what markets to reach out to, who to contact first in order to access those markets and what we could do to progress the idea as quickly as possible. The final skill building exercise was to make a pitch deck and then pitch it to one of the people running the event. Amy Klinke, U of M Center for Entrepreneurship’s Asst. Director of Small Business Initiatives, gave us some great feedback on our pitch and how to polish it even more. All in all it was a great day and I’m glad to have learned some extremely important skills!

This blog post was written by Justin Moyer, a member of Vort Port International’s Bamboo Bikes Team. He currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan and attends the University of Michigan.

Appropriate Technology

Imagine, if you would, the world.

There’s a lot out there, and no two parts are quite the same. Each one boasts a unique blend of geography, culture, resources, and so on. There are an indeterminable number of factors that define the regions of our world.

There are also a lot of problems, that’s plain to see. Somewhat more difficult to see, however, are appropriate solutions to these problems. Make no mistake: potential solutions are often abundant for issues in the developing world.

But not all solutions are created equal.

Our topic today concerns Appropriate Technology – its definition, its process, its challenges. Appropriate technology is just that: appropriate. But before diving into what that means, please watch the following video demonstrating AT in action.

At this point, some people might be scratching their heads. The guy put water and bleach in a Pepsi bottle… How does that constitute some amazing technology? Well, that’s the thing with appropriate technology: it’s all relative. Each part of the world has different characteristics, different strengths and weaknesses, which must be accounted for. Would it make more sense to supply this community with lightbulbs? They lack the necessary resources and infrastructure. Likewise, Demi’s solution would be ineffective in an area where nighttime light is needed or where the buildings are multi‑storied.

To aid our comprehension, I requested a little help from Professor Barrett Hazeltine of Brown University. Professor Hazeltine is something of a legend at Brown, having taught engineering and engineering management all over the world, including Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand. On top of that, he’s one of the most cordial people you’re ever likely to meet (for more information, see http://www.engin.brown.edu/people/Faculty/facultypage.php?id=1106970190).

Region specific and environmentally sound, appropriate technology is a solution that is “simple enough to be maintained by the user’s local community.” Hazeltine added that it is set apart by a “concern for the user in many aspects – not just cost.”

Pretty straightforward, right? Well, easier said than done. Tailoring a solution to a region requires a certain familiarity. Take Vort Port International’s recently announced Bamboo Bicycles Project in Uganda. With it, we hope to provide a sustainable, economically feasible transportation solution. For American engineers, this means constant communication with future users. What are the roads like? How much bamboo is available? What is the average family income? They provide the parameters; designers provide the technical know-how and training to make it self-sufficient.

Coming from a first world background, developing an appropriate solution often requires non-conventional thinking. This can often lead to projects not being taken seriously, Hazeltine pointed out. Consider the Bamboo Bicycles Project. One of the challenges we face is demonstrating to investors (and users) that yes, bamboo can be an effective material for bicycle construction in this region and, furthermore, it is a far better solution than supplying metal framed bicycles which locals have no means of manufacturing or repairing.

To develop appropriate technology, one must design beyond basic function. There is a personal element that pervades the entire process. Will this solution work? Will users be able to sustain it indefinitely? It’s a lot of work, but when implemented correctly, the results can change that big, wide world.

This blog post was written by Nicholas Imbriglia, a member of Vort Port International’s India Solar Lamp Team. He currently resides in Washington, DC.

Bamboo Bicycles

For ages, transportation has transformed societies.  Ever since the invention of fixed wheels on carts (3500 BC), the domestication of horses (2000 BC), and creation of a gasoline engine automobile (Lenoir, 1862), man has relied on efficient design and harnessing energy from external sources  to propel ourselves from one place to another.  In Western culture, automobiles and airplanes provide the luxury to expand businesses, visit loved ones, transport resources, and receive aid when needed.  I frequently find myself annoyed at delays in the Metro system or flights, rather than appreciating the fact that I am able to travel across the country in merely hours.

Vort Port International (VPI) has begun a new project called bamboo bikes, providing much-needed basic transportation for regions around the world that can greatly benefit from a technology such as a bicycle. The new leader of this project, Song Nguyen, spent  some time volunteering in Uganda at a non-profit called Restless Development, Uganda, she noted that in her interviews with Ugandans, one of the items they needed the most was a bicycle. They expressed the ceaseless limitations lacking a bicycle had on their daily lives, from access to basic needs of survival to healthcare. However, the cost of bicycles in Uganda are cost prohibitive for the average family, and the maintenance of the bikes are typically too difficult to access.

VPI is inspired by the Bamboo Bike Project, which was started out of Columbia University, and is working to design, prototype, test, and bring affordable and sustainable bicycles to rural communities that need it most. Bamboo itself is one of the fastest growing, sturdiest plants in the world, with the ability to grow up to 39 inches in just 24 hours. Furthermore, bamboo can be frequently found in the damp, jungle climate of Uganda.

I am excited not only to bring these products to people around the world, but to work with Song and her team to establish an educational plan so that the consumers of the bamboo bikes understand how to fix, maintain, and afford their bikes. In the future, we will explore add-ons to increase the ability for an individual to resources. These bicycles will hopefully bring the ability for a family to access food and water, medications, and critical resources in a timely manner.

This article was written by Merry Walker, who is the Executive Director of Vort Port International. She currently resides in Washington DC.

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