Wheeled solutions for West Africa

Specialized team up with US students

Specialized have teamed up with students from a US university to develop human-powered products for people in Africa.


The Morgan Hill, California-based bike company’s chief design director, Robert Egger, has been working with the industrial design department at nearby San Jose State University.

Assistant professor of industrial design Leslie Speer’s class have been tasked with designing human-powered devices which will improve the lives of people in Cameroon, a West African nation of about 16 million people. They have been working on seven different concepts since January.

The idea was that Egger and his team would visit the class three times throughout the semester: once to get an idea of which direction the students were taking their design ideas in, another time to check progress and provide constructive feedback, and the final time to review the projects. BikeRadar was invited to observe the second meeting.

The students presented their working prototypes to Egger and his team, who included Specialized’s senior industrial designer Greg Grenzke, design manager Barley Forsman and designer Jeremiah O’Riordan. Seven groups of three students set up stations in the quad outside the Art Building.

Specialized’s design manager barley forsman (r) checks out a bamboo cart prototype at san jose state university on april 13, 2009.:
Gary Boulanger

Egger’s team spent more than two hours talking with team members and testing each prototype. The underlying theme was the use of bamboo for transportation, with an emphasis on hauling people or goods to market.

A stream-fed water wheel for charging portable flashlights was a good concept in theory, but the group weren’t able to get the electric charger working. A two-wheeled bamboo grocery cart and a bamboo “backpack” continued the theme of portability.

Specialzied’s greg grenzke (r) trys out the cameroon-friendly portable backpack/dolly.:
Gary Boulanger

Student research has shown that transport in Cameroon is often difficult. Roads are poorly maintained and subject to inclement weather, since only 10 percent of roadways are tarred. 

Specialized’s chief design director robert egger (c) talks with students warren white, shane siemer and danny yu.:
Gary Boulanger

“We looked at the different attachments and ways most (Cameroon) people carried or transported things,” said student Warren White, pointing to his team’s side-car-like cart. “It was all done by hand or by wheel barrow. Working with Specialized, we were inspired by bicycles.”

An estimated 70 percent of the population farms, and agriculture comprised an estimated 45.2 percent of GDP in 2006. Most agriculture is done at the subsistence scale by local farmers using simple tools. They sell their surplus produce, and some maintain separate fields for commercial use.

Working through the ‘side-car as a cart’ concept.: working through the ‘side-car as a cart’ concept.
Gary Boulanger

“We saw pictures of people piling stuff on bikes, so we thought of providing a stable platform whether they rode the bike or pushed it,” said another student, Shane Siemer.

“We’ve tested it with upwards of 300lb; we’re shooting for 200lb. We wanted to make it robust as possible. This is intended to be more of a cart that attaches to a bike than just a side-car. We’re targeting the final cost to be similar to a wheelbarrow.”

Urban centres are reliant on peasant agriculture for their foodstuffs. Soils and climate on the coast encourage extensive commercial cultivation of bananas, cocoa, oil palms, rubber and tea.

“For them, pulling the cart is better than pushing, both uphill and down,” said sophomore Danny Yu. “We’ve designed what we think is a more durable and versatile solution.”

Students demo their ridable wheelbarrow concept.:
Gary Boulanger

A rideable wheelbarrow was another highlight of the prototypes. Egger stressed to the students the need to partner with fellow SJSU students, particularly engineering majors, to assist with bringing the projects to a more finished state.

“Specialized is involved with this project at San Jose State to develop projects for Third World countries,” Egger told BikeRadar. “One of the challenges is working on a vehicle to move produce or people to market. I saw some really fantastic concepts and ideas. Now the students need to take the concepts and bring them to fruition and construct final mock-ups. It’s only a month away for the final presentations – they have a lot of work to do!”

“There’s a common theme of transportation; there are great ideas,” Egger added. “Now the students need to create fantastic portfolios and put the rubber to the road with this project.”

The ridable wheelbarrow schematics.: the ridable wheelbarrow schematics.
Gary Boulanger

“The Specialized guys have been great at bringing their expertise in bike technologies to the project, and 13 April was their last opportunity to add their thoughts,” said Speer.


“I’m hoping that there are two or three projects that are worthy of going forward after the course is over, and I’m serious about looking into funding to get the students and the prototypes over to Cameroon to do some testing and get some feedback from the community.”