A WWU Industrial Design professor knows a better bicycle would mean a better life for Uganda’s ‘boda-bodas,’ who carry the country’s people and cargo on two wheels.
Story by John Thompson and Stacee Sledge
When Jason Morris, assistant professor of Industrial Design, saw photos of the rickety bicycles pedicab operators in the Ugandan town of Hoima used to shuttle clients and cargo, he knew he could do better.
“My first thought was, how old are these bikes?” says Morris, a cyclist himself. The design looked like it was from World War I — and he later learned it was.
“It’s like riding around on Model T’s in the year 2008,” Morris says.
The bikes, ridden by “boda-bodas,” are a primary source of transportation for most Ugandans. Cars and gas are so expensive that automobile ownership is prohibitive. So people and cargo are ferried around on bicycles.
“It’s a profession for many young, poor Ugandan men,” Morris says.
The problem is that they use ancient bikes. “Even the newer bikes imported from India are of the design common to touring bikes in Europe 75 years ago,” says Morris. “They’re not built to carry cargo.”
Two years ago, Morris’s mother — an Anglican minister doing mission work in Uganda — formed a design team made up of five local boda-bodas, who gathered regularly for lunch and discussed the ideas Morris had for a new bike design: sturdier, simple to maintain, and rugged enough to carry cargo. Slowly, the team refined Morris’s initial design.
In the spring of 2007, Morris used research funding to get the prototype built by a Seattle frame builder, and that summer he took it to Uganda, courtesy of a summer research grant and funding available through WWU’s College of Sciences and Technology.
The reaction to the prototype was even more effusive than Morris had hoped.
“The guys were so excited,” he says. “They had been telling everyone who would listen that they were helping design a new bike that was going to come from the States, and nobody believed them. Then one day, there they were, riding it around town and waving to everyone. It was just awesome.”
Morris’s prototype utilizes a fairly standard front end with a customized, reinforced rear end for carrying cargo, complete with a smaller rear tire and rim commonly used on BMX bikes.
Morris stayed in Uganda for three weeks, helping lead clinics on bike repair, filming a bicycle-safety video, and meeting with faculty at Kampala’s Kyambogo University, who hope to start the country’s first program in industrial design.
To thank the Ugandans for consulting on the bike’s design, Morris gave each design team member a toolbox full of bicycle tools and tools for their machines.
“They could use those tools to help other people in their community work on their bikes, fix flats and oil chains,” says Morris. “They owned no tools and were so excited about the gifts that they immediately sent someone to the radio station and brought back a reporter to spread the news.”
Morris’s goal is to get these bikes manufactured and to the boda-bodas at the same price for which they are buying their inefficient, outdated bikes now.
He continues to publicize the project and is working on a short documentary about it. He also recently presented the project at a national conference of the Industrial Designers Society of America.
“It could be an incredible micro-enterprise for some company,” Morris says. The application for the design patent has been sent.
“We’ll see where this next step takes us,” he says.