This post is one in a series of profiles of the 2010 class of Echoing Green Fellows. Through its two-year fellowship program, Echoing Green provides start-up capital and technical assistance to young, emerging social entrepreneurs to help them launch their organizations and build capacity.
For 23-year-old Jodie Wu, the bicycle is a true vehicle of change.
Her social enterprise, Global Cycle Solutions, based in Arusha, Tanzania, creates devices that affix to a humble two-wheeler, and instantly transform it into, say, a corn thresher, or a cell phone charger. For Wu, it’s all about pedal power.
Why the bicycle? Well for one thing, “I love biking,” Wu tells me via Skype from Arusha, a flashlight to her face due to an all too common power outage. For another, “Hundreds of thousands of Tanzanians have bicycles. Most families have one, or at least access to one. It’s the first step to independence.”
Wu, who is most concerned about income generation for the more than 500 million smallholder farmers around the world who live on less than a dollar a day, sees the bicycle as the solution.
“The reason for doing technology on the bicycle rather than other things is that, as you can see from our power outage, it’s the idea that anywhere around the world you can run these technologies off a bicycle,” she says. And the key to Wu’s products is that they are accessible, and affordable.
Cell phone charger on the go
The cell phone charger, for example, costs $10 and is a small gadget that attaches unobstrusively to a bike using an interface developed by Wu’s company. “You can be riding around, and it charges as you go,” she explains. “My phone can charge in under and hour – and that’s from zero to full charge. So if you ride at least six kilometers a day you pretty much never have to worry about charging your phone.”
The cell phone charger may be Wu’s latest creation – but as she tells me, it was actually invented by a local Tanzanian she employs whose name is Bernard; the corn thresher – or maize sheller — is where Wu got her start.
80% of Tanzanians are farmers
“There are forty million Tanzanians, 80% of them are farmers, and about 30% of them grow maize,” Wu says, breaking down the numbers for me. Their main food staple is a meal made out of maize flour and water. “And essentially they all still beat the maize with a stick, again and again and again.”
The lack of available technology in a world that is so full of it was mind-boggling to her. And it got her to thinking.
In 2008, when Wu was a mechanical engineering student at MIT– the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — she pitched a project to MIT’s famed D-Lab, which fosters development of technologies and sustainable solutions in the framework of international development. Her initial idea: to make a maize sheller out of bicycle parts. The D-Lab took on the project. Its development, though, was not without bumps in the road.
The first phase
“I was like, ‘man, I’m going to bring this technology and save Tanzania,’” she recalls, laughing. “I was in a very naïve phase of thinking I could save the world.” When she got to Tanzania, though, it was a different story. “I became very frustrated because I realized this thing that I thought was so great, was so inadequate,” she remembers thinking about the limitations of her prototype. “We’re cutting up a bicycle. And it’s only a seasonal device.”
Wu’s “a-ha” moment
Wu’s moment of truth came one jet-lagged night. “I was like, ‘What can we do to solve this problem?’ Because I knew that this was something that could really help Tanzanians.” All of a sudden, it came to her. “I remember getting out of bed and writing it all down: we don’t have to cut the bicycle, why don’t we make this a year round beneficial thing? Instead of having a stationary device that you’re not able to use for the rest of the year, why don’t we have a bicycle?”
Once the wheels were in motion, there was nothing to stop her. Wu graduated from MIT in 2009, founded Global Cycle Solutions, which won the Development Track and Audience Choice Awards of the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, and placed second at Tanzania’s Nane Nane Agricultural Fair.
Originally from Atlanta, GA, Wu now lives in Tanzania pretty much full time. “I’ve been with this project since it was just an idea in my head, and now I’m working on it in Tanzania,” she says, reflecting on her journey from MIT undergrad, to Baker Foundation Fellow, to Echoing Green fellow, to social entrepreneur.
Making it affordable
The maize sheller, like the cell phone charger, attaches to the bicycle by a specially-made interface. It shells corn 40 times faster than by hand, and in human terms, it saves immeasurably the onerous labor involved in repeatedly hitting corn-filled bags with a stick.
One maize sheller kit costs $60. “We know that not everyone can afford it,” Wu acknowledges. “Our goal is to bring it to the people through entrepreneurs who can then empower a village so the machine can then be shared by the village.” Wu is also working with microfinance institutions to make her products more widely available.
And she’s expanding the product line. Right now she’s working on a device, that attaches to a bicycle, of course, to facilitate the next phase of maize processing: grinding the kernels into flour for food.
Another goal: “We believe in co-creation, so that all of our future inventions will be in partnership with the local people.” Bernard’s concept for the cell phone charger is a case in point. Wu has also developed a cell phone charger that easily affixes to a motorcycle battery with wires, “by popular demand” she says. “You hook up our wires to any battery, whether it’s a motorcycle battery or a car battery, and charge your phone with it.”
One billion bicycles
Next stop: with a worldwide market of one billion bicycles, Wu hopes to ride to the ends of the earth with her products.
“My dream is to get Global Cycle Solutions to the point in Tanzania where it is self-sustaining,” she says of her young enterprise. “And, expanding our reach around East Africa, then actually to make it global.”
Who knew a bicycle could have so much power?
Watch the maize sheller at work:
Watch and listen as Bernard demonstrates how the cell phone charger works:
Photo courtesy of Global Cycle Solutions