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Longtail-empty-fuel-cans.jpgA typical retort to those who advocate greater reliance on bicycles as a primary mode of transportation is that they're not very useful when trying to go to the grocery store. Admittedly, most bikes that one can buy in the US are ill-suited to carrying much of a load. But there are many places throughout the world -- primarily in developing nations -- where bicycles are the main form of transportation; how do bicycle users in these places handle heavy loads?

So-called "cargo bikes" are the usual solution, but they often are little more than standard bicycles with trailers. Although this configuration can carry quite a bit, it does so at a high price (as it needs two more wheels, the costliest part of a bike) and tends to be fatiguing over longer distances. In the late 1990s, Xtracycle started to sell an add-on that would allow bikes to carry larger loads; the non-profit arm of the company, XAccess, makes this add-on available at low or no cost through the developing world. Over the subsequent years, the XAccess team improved the design, and eventually came up with "utility bicycles" made specifically to carry heavy loads. This April, XAccess started a 10 month trial of its "Bigga Boda" bike in Kenya, a vehicle able to carry hundreds of pounds of cargo or two additional passengers easily, and at a substantially lower cost than other forms of human-powered utility vehicles. XAccess intends the Bigga Boda to be available to end-users for around $30 -- 5% of the cost of a bicycle rickshaw.

It is our long-term goal to introduce affordable innovations that will help the bicycle economy of Kenya expand. With the right technology, and with proper support from the Kenyan government, the bicycle economy can create thousands more jobs, and reduce the cost of essential goods like bread, water, and cooking fuel. Kenya is the largest economy and the technological leader of East Africa. So, if we can succeed in Kenya, we will have a relatively easy time expanding our reach to Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, and Ethiopia. [...]

The name "Bigga Boda" was inspired by the Kenyan bicycle taxi operators, who call themselves "Boda Boda". [...] In 2005, Boda Boda operators are seen in all reaches of Kenya. Our job is to figure out how to use our affordable bicycle transport technologies to make an economic impact in Western Kenya, to create new jobs and wealth at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

XAccess, which is based in Berkeley, California, operates a blog for the Bigga Boda project, with regular updates and pictures.

Comments (12)

Sturt's Desert Pea:

great to see they're doing this.

As a side note for readers who may now think they need an industrial scale bicycle because " bicycles as a primary mode of transportation is that they're not very useful when trying to go to the grocery store." well this is nonsense. You'd be amazed at what you can carry without great effort or risk on a normal 2 wheel bike configuration. (I impressed myself & I'm not sporty or adventurous).

Admitedly, yr fancy pants liteweight skinny wheel racing bike aint gunna do the job. The sturdy frame, sit-upright-whilst-pedalling type bikes are not only more comfy for daily cycling, but they last much longer and moving parts can be repaired rather than thrown away ('innovative' gear &braking systems go out of fashion & aren't designed to be repaired).

I bought a clapped out no-gears back-pedal brake bike for eur20 + some repairs and used it for regular grocery trips: loading up the backback, bags hanging off the handlebars. I missed its singing spokes & rattling bits after it got nicked. Carrying loads can take some getting used to at first, but the barriers are more psychological than anything, eventually becomes fun, seeing what you can manage. Much easier with baskets and special rear-rack carry bags of course: then the bike balances better.


Awesome! I have been giving a lot of thought to buying a regular ol' Xtracycle, as my standard back wheel rack with baskets isn't quite up to the task of lugging my school work back and forth :\ (groceries? for one person? no problem. it's the minium two backpacks of computer and books and lunch that are overwhelming me) Anyway, I did not know that the company was so involved in bicycle transportation in other parts of the world, and it's fabulous :)


Very interesting effort.

On a related issue: I once broke my head thinking about micro-logistics and mobility in mountain regions. 1/6th of the world's population and a disproportionally high number of the world's poorest people - 815 million - lives in mountaneous regions. The personal logistics of heavy loads there are a total nightmare.

Most of the heavy loads there are carried by mules and other animals (only for the "wealthy" poor), and by women and children who later on suffer from their tormented backs and spines (the vast majority). Bikes don't work here.

Maybe an interesting challenge for technically minded people to think about.

I once calculated and compared the option of using -- don't laugh -- small helium balloons as a heavy lift aid (which you walk around with on a leash); they'd be fun and they could quite easily lift 20 or 30 kilos (or when combined, even more), but they're a tad more expensive than women or mules, and they're fragile. In some situations they might make sense, e.g. when transporting fresh produce that's being cultivated high up in the mountains and that has to be transported along very narrow tracks (the idea came to me when I'd watched a documentary about apple producers in the Himalayas. Getting them down was a back-braking task.)

They'd make sense in fetching water and firewood too (just think of doing a 5 mile walk everyday, with 20 litres of water on your head, going up steep slopes, - every single day...).

Mules and other animals by far remain the best option, but they require a big initial investment, they need food, and they die. They also get wounded quite often when overloaded, or they just get beaten into disobedience. No such problem with helium balloons.

The idea was to have a community own x number of balloons and a few cordura-nets; according to the task and the load, balloons are combined (person A needs to carry 50 kilos 20 kilometres away to the town down in the valley, while person B only needs to fetch 20 litres of water today, while person C only goes out to get a quick load of fire-wood, etc...). Pretty simple, but probably too expensive.

Anyone else any suggestions?

Transport in mountanious places - a challenge.

I wonder if solar power can heat air up so it will be inexpensive to get at least a small lift.

Maybe methane or other gases from biodigesters work better for this purpose?

There's also the challenge of a good leak-proof balloon. Treated intestines, perhaps?

Kites or sails?


There's the bumpy road problem - perhaps a bike with variable-lenght radii? Very soft balloon-like wheels?

Other alternatives?

Please keep us informed - maybe work with folks at http://www.demotech.org ?

Lorenzo, that's a pretty clever idea.

I think the two main things to consider are:
1) How can the mountain-dwellers manufacture their own balloons and nets (there has to be some materials avilable to them)?, and
2) How cheaply can helium be imported to these communities?

If they were in charge of manufacturing all the materials (save helium) then this would be a sustainable way for them to reduce overall labor.

A side benefit of this industry would be huge innovations in lighter-than-air technology in the form of new uses, new efficiencies, and a whole population of trained engineers.


Hi Danger Stevens,
yes, the problem is the helium costs and getting the gas over there.

If you buy it in bulk, it's not that expensive (US$ 25 to fill a 5 cubic metre heliumgrade balloon, which lifts 4 kilos).

I don't see local communities make the balloons themselves because they can only be made cheap enough in an industrial way.

What I do see is balloon owners renting out their system and making a profit with it. Just like many people rent out their mules. Another option is the community approach where a group buys one system and shares it.

Still, I think it's too expensive and it probably doesn't compete with animals:
-An adult mule costs between US$ 150 and US$ 250 (you have to feed it every day, which is an additional cost)
-For US$ 200 you have a balloon system capable of lifting 20 kilos, while a mule easily lifts 5 times that amount (you have to add a yearly cost of partly re-filling, topping off the balloons now and then, comparable to what you feed a mule)
-A mule lasts for decades, while a balloon system only last for a few years

So I don't think the scheme is realistic, it's too costly. Better invest in breeding programs for cheap mountain mules and in basic veterinary science outreach programs.

Doing some quick back of the envelope calculations, to lift 50kg you'd need a spherical balloon with a diameter of 4.57m (15 feet). (assuming 1 cu.meter lifts 1 kg)

The helium needed to fill it would cost about $250. (quick search of prices for 200+ cu.ft tanks... not counting the tank) Also factor in that you'd have to haul in the tank(s) to fill the balloon.

Considering that helium will quickly leak out of the balloon, the balloon is very bulky to do any useful lifting, it can't be used in wooded areas, it can't be used in windy areas, it's extremely expensive compared to the cost of a mule, you have to haul in the helium tanks....

...it's not a great idea.

Even if in bulk helium is available for a tenth this cost, it's still a lot more expensive than having a pack animal (especially if it's a community-shared animal).

My intention isn't to criticize the person who suggested this, only to shed some light on the impracticality of the application.

On a side note, I'd love to see the bikes mentioned in the article being sold in the US for $30. The "cheap" low-end bikes sold in the department stores for $70-100 aren't as functional and are way overpriced. A $30 bike could get a good share of the market.


Hi nasadude, you're right it's too expensive and not very practical, as I said.

As a nasadude, do you have any ideas for mountain mobility? Mules and women are the norm.

Please use your nasa-genius and find some tool with which we can get the women out of this scheme.


The easy way to get stuff up a mountain is to use a wind powered lift rope. They used to use these contraptions back in the old days. The rope turns between two pullies and you just grab the rope and get pulled up the mountain.

Kirk Sorensen:

I would try hydrogen for the lifting balloon...it should be a lot cheaper than helium and could be produced locally from water (through electrolysis) or natural gas (through steam reformation). Despite its flammability, it's actually a lot harder to get hydrogen to burn than most people think. If there's a leak, most of it will just get away. It also has twice the lift capability, per unit volume, of helium.


how much is lift increased in helium , say from 100 degrees fairenhiet to 200 degrees?"]

I would like to note that, in addition to adding cargo space on a bike, you can now throw on a do-it-yourself electric powered motor. You can find more info at www.bicycle-power.com


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