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Human and Animal Powered Vehicles (HAPV’s) have been the norm in transport for thousands of years in the first world. They are still the norm in the second world – but have yet to arrive in most of the third world.

Click to view enlargmentIn rural Africa, if something cannot be carried in person (mostly on the head), it is dragged on a travois or sledge (two poles tied behind an animal) and there is no record anywhere of a native workshop or factory, presently or historically, for the mass production of the wheel, carts, carriages or bicycles.

The extent to which the absence of the wheel has impaired development in Africa can only be guessed. In terms of health, social structure and nature, the effect of its absence has been, and still is, devastating i.e:

  • Click to view enlargmentHealth: In the past, water (food and fuel) determined where people lived and when they migrated. Because of its proximity, multiple trips to fetch water in small and reasonably sized clay pots was not a problem. Nowadays, with migratory habits curtailed by borders, territories, highways and railway lines, women in some cases have to walk in excess of 25 kilometres to fetch water. The result – bigger containers and heavier loads (mostly recycled 25 litre industrial containers, weighing in at 25 kg filled with water). Loads that are too heavy for human health – and a major contributor to osteoarthritis among aging African women, in spite of their ‘load-adapted’ skeletal frames and vertibrae.
  • Social Structure: In most rural communities fetching water is a daily chore. In many cases though, it consumes a major part of the day, leaving little time for other necessities e.g. tending children, animals and gardens. (Carrying 25 litres of water over 25 kilometres can take a full day.)
  • Nature: The travois or sledge has been in use for centuries to transport heavy loads. Unfortunately it has been a major contributor to the onset of soil erosion in Africa (“dragging the top soil into the oceans”) and one of the worst exploitations of animal power, both in terms of abuse and inefficiency


Water on tap for all would be the ideal way to solve the above, but will not become a reality for most in rural Africa for many years to come – and when it does, it won’t resolve the dire need for basic transportation.

Affording a motorised vehicle will remain out of reach for the majority of Africans. Depending on public transport also won’t help, as it is hopelessly inadequate in urban areas and extremely limited and expensive in rural areas – with nothing to suggest that the status quo may change in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, Human and Animal Powered Vehicles (HAPV’s) could be a feasible solution. Affordable to the masses, both in terms of purchasing (private or communal) and running costs, HAPV’s could transform life on the continent and help resolve many difficulties, including major development inertia.

It is however, a mode of transport that for some reason has never taken off in Africa. Maybe because 70% of the continent’s surface consists of soft sand – and inflatable tyre technology was never available. Whatever the reasons in the past, HAPV’s incorporating and based on modern technology (Mars & Moon Buggies) should seriously be considered as a mode of transport for Africa, particularly in rural communities – even at the risk of it being viewed as a step backward in time. (A probable, yet incorrect notion, as Africa has never gone through this phase of transportation development.)


HAPV’s could be purpose-built – adapted for humans, various types of animals, terrains and loads.

Single wheeler Pulled or pushed by a human 25kg load
Two wheeler Pulled by a goat 25kg load
Two wheeler Pulled by two goats 50kg load
Two wheeler Pulled by a donkey 50kg load
Two wheeler Pulled by two donkeys 100-300kg load
Two wheeler Pulled by two oxen or horses 200-400kg load
Four wheelers Pulled by oxen or horses 200kg + load
Panniers For donkeys, oxen or horses 50-100kg load


  • To incorporate past experience with new technology.
  • Multi-purpose – to transport water, wood, thatch, commodities, etc.
  • Lightweight, high-tensile strength materials.
  • Minimal moving and/or loose parts.

  • Large diameter for the least rolling resistance.
  • Initially second-hand ‘skimmed’ tyres would be used.
  • Tyres would be foam-filled (‘Perma-Tube’) and off-balance weighted to prevent their use on motorised vehicles.
  • Width would be terrain-dependent (balloon tyres for sand).
Low Maintenance:

  • Non-deflatable tyres.
  • Non-service (sealed) bearings.
  • Non-corrosive and/or UV-resistant materials and finishes.

  • Animal ‘friendly’ – combining past experience and new technology.
  • Materials: Leather, UV-resistant polymers and non-corrosive metal.

  • Harnesses: Produced in reflective materials.
  • Wheels: Coated with reflective paints.
  • Reflectors: As per road ordinance.
  • Chevrons: A designated colour for HAPV’s.


While the HAPV’s are proposed for all obvious and pre-mentioned reasons, they also offer excellent economic upliftment and empowerment opportunities i.e:

  • Instead of being mass-produced in large scale factories, the HAPV’s could be manufactured in ‘micro’ community factories co-owned by the workers, similar to the cottage/garage industry in China.
  • All factories could be part of a ‘franchise’ – to centralise and ensure product quality and uniformity in design, procurement, training, management, financial control and national marketing.
  • All worker/owners (franchisees) could be trained in multiple skills e.g. metal, leather, polymers, paints & coatings, rubber (tyres), basic engineering and ultimately marketing and management.
  • All existing micro factory franchises could serve as business incubators and offer apprenticeships in multiple skills to prospective worker/owners of future franchises.


Demand & Market Saturation:

To assess sustainability without HAPV prototypes, a feasibility study and a pilot project factory, would be a wild guess. There is no doubt however of the urgent need in sub-Saharan Africa for any form of transport – a need that would take decades to satisfy. And once there is a demand, it may take even longer to reach market saturation.

Affordability & Sponsorship:

Affordability will remain the biggest stumbling block for some, as even the most basic HAPV would cost more than ”the next meal.” This should by no means deprive the needy of the wheel however. Solutions could be found in government subsidies, corporate sponsorships and international grants – particularly if motivations for such contributions highlighted the collective (positive) impact HAPV’s would have on health promotion, social and humanitarian care, nature preservation, upliftment and empowerment.

Cost Savings:

To contain costs, ‘Wheel & Water’ should be established as a social upliftment & empowerment project, under the auspices of a section 21 company i.e. Universal Wellbeing.Org (UW.O). This will allow the project to qualify for donations, grants, pre-owned equipment and used material contributions, training sponsorships and reduced advertising rates.

Business Incubator:

The first production unit could be established as a social upliftment project within an existing corporate engineering concern with a reciprocal benefit to the latter as a training facility. Prototypes, a feasibility study and all training should be produced and concluded at this facility before any micro manufacturing ‘franchises’ are established elsewhere. This original production unit (or similar) should remain as a future training facility and business incubator. Ultimately it could expand to accommodate a product range extension, adaptation and diversification (to include other basic life essentials e.g. household, school & hospital furniture, farming equipment & implements, etc.) which would automatically increase project life expectancy.

Share Allocation:

Once a franchise unit has established a market and reached profitability, at least 70% of its shares should be transferred to seven pre-determined worker / owners @ 10% each. The remaining shares (and dividends) are to be held by the ‘Franchisor’ – which in turn, will be co-owned by UW.O and the ‘Project Sponsor’. Dividends will be used to help fund new franchises and decrease franchise group dependency on social contributions.


It may be prudent at this point to ponder the ‘African Renaissance’ and to reflect on the Chinese experience in similar circumstances.


Fuelled by the quest for ‘bigger and better’, science and technology are racing ahead at an unprecedented pace in the modern world, escalating the cost of living and widening the divides between the developed and emerging markets. Global competition and product sophistication are resulting in mechanised and computerised production; a shift in labour demand from unskilled and semi-skilled to skilled; and major retrenchments in labour-intensive economies – a point clearly demonstrated in our local mining and vehicle-manufacturing sectors with large-scale shrinkages in their un-skilled labour forces.

The high level of unemployment in South Africa may point to an industry getting too sophisticated in its production methods and possibly illustrate a need for a secondary (labour-intensive) industry to cater for more basic consumer necessities. Meaningful growth should be measured by the improvement in living standards of the mass population. To achieve the latter we may have to re-evaluate our present economic models and seriously contemplate the following:

  • What model and level of development are we striving for – and by when?
  • Are we emulating Europe or America – and is the model based on Northern Hemisphere needs, mindset, circumstances and standards?
  • Should what evolves in Africa not at the very least be a synthesis of Northern technology and Southern reality?
  • Is it development at all and any cost – even at the cost of our ‘collective’ wellbeing, our continent and ultimately our planet...
  • or are we going to embrace a ‘measured’ development – paced to ensure at least basic liveable standards, education and employment for our own emerging populations?

...because of our hunger for gold, we suffered a catastrophe.
(National Geographic – March 2004)

In their urge for advancement and modernisation, China followed a catastrophic strategy of do and develop now – and fix later. It took a devastating flood, mud slides and a huge loss of life to change their irresponsible ways. They are now spending billions of dollars in foreign aid and own resource to replant fields, valleys and hillsides previously stripped bare to make way for wheat. Cleaning their dams and rivers from harmful waste, sewage and industrial effluent, indiscriminately dumped to this day, will cost them much more in future – and so will cleaning up their act to stop their massive air pollution. Poor mining and industrial practices cause peasant workers to pay a high price in health and lives to guarantee the opulent West imports at low prices.

If everyone lived like Americans, you would need three planet Earths to sustain the level of consumption.
(National Geographic – March 2004)

South Africa is in urgent need of broad-based development which needs to be in sync with realistic standards, aspirations, resources and a level of skill to ensure it could be effected by its people – for themselves.

It is time to do!

Braam van Reenen
For Universal Wellbeing.Org

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