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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
organization. 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.
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,
and 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.
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.”
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.
For more information on the Banda Bikes project click here.
Written by Merry Walker, Co-founder and Executive Director of Vort Port International
Season’s greetings to our members, friends, families, and all of our supporters. Thank you for your continued support through this eventful year. We understand that with the global economic uncertainty, natural disasters, and other world events, that giving may be difficult; we appreciate your support that much more.
This year has also been one of learning and growth for Vort Port International (VPI). It is easy to get caught up in our day-to-day tasks that we often forget to step back and look at how much ground we’ve covered. Let’s re-visit all that VPI has accomplished in 2012, towards our mission of improving the lives of those who lack access to basic necessities.
In late January, the India Solar Lamp project (ISL) project director, Chandni Shah, technical lead, Nick Imbriglia, and I visited India to conduct a feasibility assessment. We traveled through the streets of New Delhi, across the country and ultimately, ended in southern India, where we met with an amazing organization, the South Central Indian Network for Development Alternatives (SCINDeA). Their council, as well as input from village members significantly improved ISL’s solar lamp design. The local community shed light on how light translates directly into safety, education, and the opportunity to earn a living after the sunlit hours of the day. Beyond the technology, the ISL team is developing curriculum geared toward women. ISL will impart new skills on how to build, sell, and maintain this project’s solar lamps. They will also teach women solar technology works. Knowing many close friends who lost power after Hurricane Sandy, we have greater appreciation for a product like VPI’s solar lamp — an affordable lamp that can be operated without an electrical grid, and in tough weather conditions.
In June, the Bandha Bikes project director, Song Nguyen, visited rural Uganda, where she showcased the project’s first bicycle frame (built with the help of Justin Moyer and other undergraduate students at the University of Michigan) to potential pilot villages and community partners. The bicycle, made from locally-sourced bamboo, represents the potential for improved transportation and job-creation in the region. The bamboo prototype elicited immense interest from our various partners including Arise and Shine Uganda, Nansana Children’s Center, and Real Partners Uganda. The team is also developing curriculum to teach individuals to build, repair, and sell the bikes. As such, these bicycles provide an entrepreneurial opportunity to our partners, and allow those without access to transportation to benefit from increased economic opportunity, mobility, and productivity. With our developing partnerships, and the completion of a second prototype, Bandha Bikes plans to pilot this project in 2013.
Our Madagascar Biodigesters project completed two additional prototypes this year, and increased its partnership base, including collaborations with the University of Antananarivo, the Rotaract Club AVANA, and the Peace Corps Madagascar. The team is working with a talented group of student engineers at the University of Antananarivo to conduct a full-scale test in Madagascar of their most recent prototype. Baseline data from testing abroad will help gain further insight on the performance of these biodigesters, and provide further direction for the next design iteration. The team is also developing its educational, outreach, and business plans this coming year, and plans to pilot these biodigesters in various Malagasy communities. The biotechnology will help reduce the amount of indigenous deforestation that occurs so rapidly in Madagascar from those who burn their local forests for fire fuel for food preparation.
VPI has grown this last year. Our organization is now 40 members strong, who have collectively contributed over 10,000 hours toward project development, various media efforts, fundraising, and legal support in 2012. Through careful spending of less than $4,000 this year, the projects built a total of 6 new prototypes, sent 4 people overseas for research, hosted 2 fundraising events, developed 6 international partnerships, and established our first student chapter at the University of Michigan. I thank all of our members and our student help, for putting so much time and energy into our organization’s development, as well as maintaining their focus on empowering those who need it the most.
In 2013, VPI will concentrate on moving all projects from the prototype phase to piloting. This will be a big year for action as we continue to develop our educational and training programs, perfect our technologies, and grow as an organization. We hope to keep you informed with our progress.
As Hurricane Sandy ripped through our backyards this fall, leaving so many without homes, it reminds us that we are all human. We are susceptible to the cold, and we all need food and love to fill our bellies and hearts. It is in these times of adversity that we are reminded how very connected we are, by the thread of our existence and our need to survive and protect those around us. I am so honored to be working with extraordinary people who understand the importance of our basic needs, and our inherent need to do our part in this global community.
Think of a time when someone said or did something that brought you to action, and you were empowered to make a change in your life or for your loved ones. As no act is too small, we ask you today to think of how to be that positive force for someone else. Please follow the link below and help empower your world today.
The ambitious and worthy goals we have set for 2013 require your belief in what we strive to do. From the bottom of our hears, we thank you for your sustained encouragement and support.
Wishing you hope, happiness, and fulfillment in 2013!
Executive Director, Vort Port International
This last year was a year of learning and growth. In just our second year of operation, we focused on growing our volunteer-base, developing our projects, and defining our mission and vision with more granularity.
In preparing for the new year, we took a moment to reflect on what we’ve accomplished this last year. Here are some major milestones that our team met this past year:
- Became an official 501(c)3 organization
- Hosted three successful fundraisers- one in DC, one in NY, and one virtual fundraiser
- Improved website operations
- Created, maintained social media tools (facebook, twitter, blog)
- Got a lab space in DC
- Created two videos as spots for social advertising
- Recruited over 20 new members for VPI, growing it from about 14 in 2010 to 38 current members
- Got accepted to 1% for the planet, globalgiving, crowdrise, pledgemusic, guidestar, and google nonprofits as official charity
- Became official partner in the 2012 SF Marathon
- Created cost model and VPI overall business executive summary to prepare for angel and seed investors in 2012
- Successfully fund raised over $2,000 to support VPI projects
- Placed in the 2011 WJF competition
- Partnered with the University of Michigan’s SAESC
- Completed the business plan, including an educational plan to teach the locals to build and sell their own reactors
- Developed a partnership with Zingerman’s Deli to operate the first prototype and attempt to produce methane gas to run their coffee roasters
- Had the first successful prototype design validated in Brazil
- Submitted an article to the Michigan Water Environment Association to be published in an upcoming magazine
- Created a new Washington DC- based team
- Began the design of a second Biodigester prototype
- Completed installing the solar panels, computers, and back-up batteries for a school of 1050 children
- Completed building alpha prototype and designing the beta prototype
- Advanced to Round II in the 2012 WJF competition (ongoing)
- Developed relationship with SCIndia NGO in India
- Completed in-country feasibility assessment with SCIndia
This week, most of us will visit our loved ones, enjoy wonderful meals, and give thanks for what we have. This is a tradition built on the early beginnings of celebrated philanthropy. While we may enjoy a bountiful meal, many around the world may never experience this in their lifetimes.
People around the world must choose between paying for food and water or having a source of light for the evening; riding into town to sell goods or attending school; investing in fertilizer for a better crop, or purchasing medicine for their sick children. At this time of the year especially, I am reminded of how fortunate I am and I believe that no family should have to make these decisions.
I am proud be a part of a team working towards developing sustainable technologies and solutions to improve the quality of life for communities around the world. We are working this holiday season, just like any other time of the year, to ensure that more people around the world can have access the basic necessities that I am thankful for, such as such as light, heat, and access to transportation. Whether we are assessing best way to design a bamboo bicycle to increase access to transportation, a biodigester to provide clean energy to cook food and heat water, or a solar lantern to provide light in a home, Vort Port International strives to make lives better.
Vort Port International is unlike most other non-profit organizations in that we incubate ideas from the ground up and address issues from environmental, social, and economic standpoints. We are currently developing three projects in India, Madagascar, and Uganda focused on decreasing deforestation and pollution, and increasing access to transportation, electricity, and light. We are working to partner with multiple organizations and Universities to expand and distribute our work around the world. We are 100% volunteer-based , so every dollar from your tax-deductible donation will go directly to our projects.
Please give back to those in need this holiday season by supporting our efforts. Your active participation in our events and generous financial support will help ensure that we can continue to make a positive impact on underserved communities. By participating this year, we want to offer a small token for your support with our gift levels, which can be found on our website (www.vortport.org/give). Thank you for believing in us, and helping to make the world healthier and better place. I hope you all have a safe and happy holiday season!
It is truly a pleasure and honor for me to work with everyone in our organization. Everyone who works with us is a volunteer. To think that they put in hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to create a world without poverty is moving and inspiring. These volunteers know that with the right tools and skills, families within a community can work to change themselves, and create lasting positive change in our world. I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity to work alongside these volunteers and communities, and can’t wait to see what this organization will accomplish this coming year.
Happy New Year!
Merry Walker, Co Founder and Executive Director
Unlike any other generation, today’s growing youth are passionate about bringing clean and sustainable energy ideas to fruition. In order to provide ideas to use this passion and interest in young students, The Sustainable and Alternative Energy Student Council (SAESC) was created at the University of Michigan. SAESC was created by two Vort Port International members with a mission to empower students to create sustainable solutions for committees around the world and Vort Port International is now collaborating with them!
To give you a little more input into what we’re doing, Sustainable & Alternative Energy Student Council is a collaboration of students from different colleges within the University of Michigan working together to create sustainable and alternative energy solutions. The group is an “umbrella” organization, consisting of well-rounded individual project teams that critique and encourage each other, creating optimal results. Currently, there are three projects: Biodigester, Bamboo Bikes, and Pedal-Powered Energy.
The Biodigester team is a multidisciplinary group of U-M students that focuses most of their work on doing research and testings for the Vort Port International Biodigester Project. The team is committed to providing renewable methane energy to rural communities for cooking purposes, through anaerobic biodigestion. Madagascar is the pilot country for this project, as the country, home to one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. The use of wood for cooking has increased deforestation to a new high in Madagascar, at about 3% annually. With our biodigestion units, they aim to replace wood with methane for stove cooking, and overall decrease and discourage deforestation. Biodigestion uses a community of microorganisms to degrade organic waste into biogas (methane and carbon dioxide) and a nutrient-rich fertilizer slurry. Vort Port International and SAESC are aiming at implementing our first unit in 2012, with a long term goal expanding out of Madagascar.
The Bamboo Bike project is currently working on constructing initial prototypes for the Vort Port International project. Bamboo Bikes is dedicated to providing rural communities with bamboo bicycles, which aim to increase access of basic resources and healthier lifestyles. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants is also a strong frame alternative to metal bicycles. The project aims to improve the economy and welfare in regional communities by educating and training women, youth, health care services, and farmers the project aims on the local level to build and maintain these bicycles. Bikes will be provided to Ugandan’s at low costs due to subsidies provided by sales in the U.S. We plan on issuing 2000 bikes over a 5 year period to improve the transportation of goods and people thus improving quality of life for those in need.
The Pedal-Powered Energy Project is focusing more on encouraging the use of alternative energy on campu, as well as inspire students to think beyond traditional energy sources. The Pedal-Powered Team is planning a huge campus-wide event: a “pedal-powered” film festival – an interactive, fun, and invigorating film festival powered by students riding a stationary bicycle. The potential for energy acquired from pedal-power (bicycle power) is tremendous. The group will be building or modifying all components of the project, from the motors in treadmills, to the projector and audio system. Ultimately, this project will enhance research, education, and practice of sustainability for University students, staff, and faculty. It is a goal of the team to get others to consciously think about ways to use alternative energy and ways to create new sources of clean energy.
A generation of young students, ranging from experienced graduate students in engineering to curious freshmen who haven’t decided what they would like to major in, is volunteering their time and efforts at the University of Michigan to bring ideas to life! More updates on SAESC will be coming soon!
This blog post was written by Agneta Venkatraman, a research lead of Vort Port International’s Biodigester Team. She currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan and attends the University of Michigan.