Interview with Jodie Wu, President and CEO, and Daniel Mokrauer-Madden, Logistics Manager
27 December 2010
Interviewers: Linton Hartfield and Felicity Hartfield
LH: What is Global Cycle Solutions?
JW: GCS is a social enterprise and what we are doing is developing bicycle add-ons that you can put on any bicycle, to turn the bicycle into an income generating device or something which helps ease lives. In Kiswahili we say kurahisisha kazi.
(Jodie points to the A4 print out on the wall)
JW: The mission statement of GCS, ‘To improve village life through affordable quality technology that helps village life’, essentially.
LH: Can you tell us who is involved, a bit about your background and how you have come to this point?
JW: OK, So it has a very evolving history, I guess it starts when I studied Mechanical Engineering at MIT and I went through the whole “I want to be an engineer” and I took my internships at big corporations, and I was like “I don’t want to be an engineer anymore” (laughs). After that I took a course called DLAB, which Daniel was involved in as well. It’s run by an inspirational lecturer at MIT called Amy Smith who has 4 years of experience working in Peace Corps in Botswana.
DM: The D in DLAB stands for 3 things – development, design, and dissemination.
JW: That was my inspiration in the sense that this was the first class that I had taken where I could actually apply my engineering skills in a different context, working with community partners. At the time there were about 25 students who all went to different countries, and I chose to go to Tanzania. I wanted to do something that was very tangible and hands on, so I chose to introduce the maize sheller which is modelled off a device that was used in Guatemala by another NGO called MayaPedal. I brought it into Tanzania hoping it would fit right in but found that it was unsuitable here in the sense of, It was great for shelling maize but the problem was you only use it 2 or 3 weeks per year if you use it at your own farm, it is really heavy, and what makes it expensive is not the technology itself, but everything supporting the technology, like a seat that adjusts, and the flywheel on the back and cutting up a bicycle if you wanted it to be pedal powered. People in Tanzania couldn’t use this device, so why don’t we just put this device on a bicycle, don’t even cut up a bicycle, don’t worry about all the other infrastructure, so they use it during the season and just take it off the bike and use the bike for the rest of the year. The whole concept was a year round device where harvesting technologies would be added right on. That is where the idea came from and I then took it through the next phases of design and dissemination and I put together a team. And then we won some competitions and cash prizes plus were offered some private investment and I really thought this could work. We began here in August 2009 and we are all here indefinitely until we get it off the ground.
LH: This might be a good opportunity to talk about the products.
JW: So we have three products: the maize sheller and the mobile phone charger which both work off a bicycle, and by popular demand another mobile charger which charges from a motorcycle or off other batteries.
LH: What were people doing before using the maize sheller?
JW: There are three main processes. One is doing it by hand, so taking each kernel off by hand.
DM: It’s a really tiring process, if you are at it for 8 hours a day your thumbs get incredibly sore. Like repeatedly texting but for an entire day.
JW: It’s a very time consuming process. The second process is putting the maize into a bag and beating the bag for several hours, and that is the most common practice in Tanzania. It actually damages the bags as you can imagine all the cobs trying to come out and creating holes in the bag. It also damages the maize – the maize is a yellow shell filled with white powder, when you beat it the white powder comes out and that is also a big attraction to maize weevils and other animals.
FH: And you said there is a third process?
JW: And the third type, which is used mainly in Kenya, is using a table made of wooden slats upon which the maize is laid and then beaten. It’s a faster process and the maize is less damaged because once it is shelled it falls between the slats. And also no bags are damaged in the process.
LH: How many people in Tanzania are beating maize in sacks?
JW: It is approximately 70%, and this corresponds with about 70% of farmers who are still using hand hoes, they don’t have tractors. There is also another automated shelling process that is powered by tractors called a power take off. Even so, there are still farms with tractors that can’t afford the 1 million Tanzanian Shillings (approx. $1000 US) for this unit, and it also is not worth hiring the tractor for smaller crops of say 20 sacks of maize.
LH: How many sacks can you beat per day?
DM: It depends on how many people come to your farm, but some people have said they can beat up to 8 sacks per day, and some people pull their children out of school during harvest time to complete this process.
LH: So you have met the market half way, your product lies in between the large scale tractor process and the sack beating method?
JW: Right, exactly. What we were trying to create with the bicycle was a product that families could use. The idea was, just like the tractor, it could travel to different farms for use, so it could service a community. With the bicycle attachment you can shell 15 sacks of maize per day without damaging the maize. For the entrepreneur, he can make enough money to purchase a bicycle and the maize sheller in one month. For the farmer, the unit is not too expensive to purchase themselves. It is a win, win, win situation: a win for the retailer, a win for the entrepreneur, and a win for the farmer.
FH: How have you raised the profile of the company and the products?
DM: We have done some radio promotion through a local radio station. One of our biggest advertisement pushes has been through fairs and exhibitions. We have gone out and set up booths at major agriculture fairs which they have about 4 or 5 of per year in different major cities around Tanzania. We sell our products through TFA, which is a chain store agriculture distributer ‘Tanganyika Farmers Association’ and they have stores in a lot of major cities. This helps us with access to people all across the country.
One of the major pushes though has been through developing partnerships with community organisations that have strong links with the communities, NGOs that are trying to work with a development technology portfolio, some micro finance institutions. One of the lessons we have learnt with partnerships is that you are going to have about 9 failures with every 1 success. It really is about being persistent and determined.
JW: Our sales manager is working from Dar es Salaam with major sponsors, and we have reps working in the field with communities and community groups like credit cooperatives and community banks. So overall there are two approaches – one bottom up and the other top down. And we hope that what we are doing will meet somewhere in the middle.
FH: What areas of Tanzania are using the maize sheller? Where do you see the GCS products spreading to?
JW: We have the three products across Tanzania. The maize sheller is used predominantly in the highlands where maize production is high, and it’s a main staple of East Africa.
We have offices here in Arusha, in Dar es Salaam, Moshi, and Dodoma. We’ love to spread across East Africa and other areas of the world. We’re growing slowly and have learnt a lot since being here, and have expanded from one product – maize sheller – to three. We realised we couldn’t rely on the sheller alone considering that last year Tanzania had the worst drought for 30 years. The chargers and sheller have very different markets and are in different stages of development so adapting to that has been a challenge.
FH: What are the plans for the future?
JW: We are currently working on a rice thresher and a maize grinder, to complete the whole maize life cycle. And we’ve just started a new initiative which stems from the belief that all our products should be made with locals, we call it co-creation. We are trying to build innovation in local communities with community capacity building and workshops for people to develop their own ideas.
DM: Co-creation is about locals teaming up with staff from GCS to assess the needs of their community and come up with a solution together. It really is about local people developing the products they want, ones that fit their constraints. We’re hoping to launch our pilot program in January and from there we are going to see what we can do.
JW: GCS is in the first stage of a start-up: piloting a product, and proving that we can be profitable. And then the next phase will be about scaling, and expansion. But of course we want to get it right in Tanzania before we expand properly into other countries.
For more information, go to Global Bicycle Solutions