September 14, 2002 - New York Times: RPCV Arnold Wendroff develops Handcart for Malawi

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2002: 09 September 2002 Peace Corps Headlines: September 14, 2002 - New York Times: RPCV Arnold Wendroff develops Handcart for Malawi

By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, November 20, 2002 - 3:48 pm: Edit Post

RPCV Arnold Wendroff develops Handcart for Malawi

Read and comment on this story from the New York Times on Malawi RPCV Arnold Wendroff who has invented a Handcart for Africa to replace the head-borne basket. In a region where the work force has been devastated by AIDS, the need for cheap and practical alternatives to what is known as "head-loading" is immense, said Prof. John M. Staatz, an expert in African agriculture and transport issues at Michigan State University. Much of the continent still lacks the money for such longer-term solutions as more cars and better roads. Read the story at:

A Brooklyn Inventor Eases an African Headache*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

A Brooklyn Inventor Eases an African Headache

For centuries, women in rural Africa have carried heavy loads on their heads as they take goods to market. But a man in Brooklyn thinks he has a better way, and as far-fetched as it may seem people in one African nation have begun to listen.

Arnold Wendroff, an itinerant inventor who worked in the Peace Corps and later studied in Malawi, has designed a wooden handcart to relieve the burden there.

Slightly larger and more stable than a wheelbarrow, the handcart can be easily built using native materials and two bicycle tires. It is also cheaper to make and more practical than a bicycle. Best of all, a woman can carry far more in the cart that she can on her head.

The carts are now being used not only to replace head-borne baskets, but also to haul trash in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, to carry produce in remote provinces, even to ferry sick people to hospitals. Politicians are paying attention, and Western development experts speak admiringly of Dr. Wendroff's efforts.

It is a sweet vindication for Dr. Wendroff, a 60-year-old with a bristly beard who spent years crisscrossing Malawi like an evangelist, talking about his handcart to anyone who would listen.

There is nothing exceptional in the cart's design, Dr. Wendroff is quick to point out. The latest model is based on sketches in a book he bought at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

But in a region where the work force has been devastated by AIDS, the need for cheap and practical alternatives to what is known as "head-loading" is immense, said Prof. John M. Staatz, an expert in African agriculture and transport issues at Michigan State University. Much of the continent still lacks the money for such longer-term solutions as more cars and better roads.

"It is really of great importance," said Jephthah Chagunda, the director of the Malawi Rural Travel and Transport Program, which is financed by the World Bank and recently bought and distributed 16 handcarts in a pilot project. About 65 carts are in use in Malawi, with more being built by a farmers' association and by the Lilongwe City Assembly.

For Dr. Wendroff, the handcarts are just one part of a decidedly eccentric career. He is an occasional research associate in the geology department at Brooklyn College.

He got a Ph.D. in sociology by studying witchcraft and traditional medicine in Malawi in the 1980's There is no patent on the handcart design, and Dr. Wendroff said he made no money from the handcarts. He said he lived off a modest pension and a small inheritance.

"This will revolutionize the way they live, because they have to get their own water and firewood every day," Dr. Wendroff said recently outside his Park Slope home. He was sitting comfortably in one of his handcarts as a visitor wheeled him on a demonstration tour from his brownstone to Prospect Park, half a block away. With his 150-pound frame balanced in the cart, he seemed as light as a feather.

Still, the handcarts have not been an easy sell.

The concept first dawned on Dr. Wendroff in 1989, when he was helping a friend clear some land in the Catskills. Later that year, in Malawi, he showed pictures of American garden carts to farmers, who were eager to buy them. But the cart's steel axles were unavailable there.

In 1992, Dr. Wendroff returned to Malawi with wheels and axles, traveling the countryside and trying to persuade government ministers, nonprofit groups and others to manufacture carts. Everyone was enthusiastic, but no one built them.

In 1998, he finally succeeded in persuading the Malawi minister of agriculture to hold a handcart demonstration. A favorable report followed, and two years later he met with the president of Malawi, Bakili Muluzi, which resulted in some favorable publicity in Malawi. But still no carts.

He redesigned the cart in wood, making sure it could be built and repaired with local materials like castoff bicycle screws. Nuts and bolts that can be bought at any American hardware store are extremely rare in Africa, he explained.

"It's so simple," he said as he led a visitor to his basement workshop in Brooklyn. He laid out the tools required to build a handcart: saws, hammer, screwdriver, brace, tape measure, square, plane, and countersink.

Simplicity, as it happens, was part of the problem.

Unlike Asia, where bicycles and rickshaws have been mass-produced for decades, Africa has always looked to the West, where motorized transport and roads were the model.

There has been a "deep-seated stigma associated with handcarts, as they are considered a technological retrogression," said Peter Njenga, an Africa-based analyst for the International Forum for Rural Transport Development, in an e-mail message. But the fact is that there is no money to pay for more advanced methods.

Now, history may finally be turning Dr. Wendroff's way.

"There's been a recognition that they need simpler means of transport in the short term," said Stephen Brushett, an economist at the World Bank, which has been criticized for favoring giant development options like highways and dams.

There has also been a recognition that traditional African head-carrying has a price. Although studies have shown that African women have developed a special gait to deal with the loads they carry on their heads, many have suffered spinal injuries from excessive burdens in recent years, Mr. Chagunda said.

During Dr. Wendroff's latest trip to Malawi, in June, several nongovernmental groups ordered carts and expressed interest in helping distribute them throughout the country. Eventually, he hopes to take the idea to the rest of the continent.

Dr. Wendroff trained a number of Malawian carpenters to make the carts. The parts and labor to build a cart cost about 3,000 kwacha, or about $40, a lot of money in a country where the annual per capita income is $190. But other methods are far more expensive: an ox cart costs about $400 (without the ox).

In Lilongwe, the City Assembly has begun using the carts for garbage collection and street cleaning (replacing the wheelbarrows that were used previously). They are being used as ambulances by a rural hospital in Chitedze. The officials who worked with Dr. Wendroff in Malawi have been sending him follow-up questions by e-mail.

"The women love it, and best of all, they're suggesting improvements," Dr. Wendroff said. "It really seems to be catching on."

Dr. Wendroff has even learned something about salesmanship. On his last trip, he noticed that despite their poverty, Malawians spend money on perfumed soap, because of the sexy billboards advertising the soap in Lilongwe. Could something similar be done for handcarts?

"We don't have money for advertising," he said. But he has decided that naming it the Livingstonia cart after the 19th century colonial explorer may have been a mistake. "Now we're thinking of calling it the Africart," he said.

About the Malawi Handcart Project

Visit the web site for the Malawi Handcart Project at:

Malawi Handcart Project

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