New Era (Windhoek)

29 August 2006

Namibia to Make Bicycle Ambulances

Windhoek — In light of the limited financial resources and the high costs involved in running a vehicle fleet, rural dwellers could have quicker access to health facilities as plans are afoot to launch the first ever bicycle ambulance-making plant in Namibia.

Often it has proven itself that the simplest technology can be the answer to life's challenges. One such solution is that of introducing bicycle ambulances that can save many lives, especially in the rural areas where distances to health centres are far and few between. It is against this background that Bicycle Empowerment Network Namibia, known by its acronym BEN Namibia, will launch the first ever bicycle ambulance manufacturing plant.

The launch of the plant is expected in October.

Once in operation, the bicycle ambulances will be delivered to rural communities in the north of the country in partnership with community-based organisations, while at the same time strengthening grassroots response to HIV/Aids.

So how does a bicycle ambulance actually look like, was the question New Era posed to the Managing Director of BEN Namibia Michael Linke.

"Bicycle ambulances are 'stretchers on wheels' that attach to normal bicycles and tow a sick person or pregnant women to a hospital or clinic where no transport is available."

The idea behind this initiative is to overcome the challenge of long distances especially when it comes to being able to get a sick person to a health centre through this means of transport. Furthermore, a two-wheeled trailer, made from moulded metal and standard rubberised wheels, can also be attached with a "bed" section padded with cushions and a "seat" section that allows a family member to attend to the patient during transit.

Over the years, BEN Namibia's work in delivering bicycles to home-based care volunteers in the north has shown that there is an enormous need for emergency transport solutions for the care of people living with HIV/Aids.

It appears bicycle ambulances could save local lives and in other African countries like Uganda, Malawi and Zambia, where these initiatives are shaping up, there has been a visible decline in infant and maternal mortality rates.

For instance, in the poor flat plains of Nepal a sick woman survived after she was placed on a trailer attached to the back of a bicycle and transported 14 km to the nearest health centre for urgent medical attention. It was reported that her life was saved - but without the bicycle ambulance she would have almost certainly died.

In pushing ahead with plans to launch the first bicycle ambulance manufacturing plant in the country, last year BEN Namibia developed and built prototypes that were tested by home-based care volunteers in Oshakati who provided the necessary input in the designing process.

The plant will be based in Windhoek from which these emergency means of transport will be distributed. This venture will further see the establishment of regional production centres throughout the country.

However, in order to make this initiative possible, BEN Namibia is looking for partners and sponsors to contribute to funding the production of the first 96 bicycle ambulances. Although it is not a new idea in Africa, since bicycle ambulances have been used for the past 20 years in many developing countries, the latest venture in Namibia is viewed by BEN Namibia as a new opportunity to not only improve health service delivery through providing bicycle ambulances, but also to provide job creation, skills training and small business ventures for local entrepreneurs who are interested in starting something like this in their immediate communities.

"The bike ambulance is a high visibility project that will attract a lot of local and international media coverage. It's also an opportunity to associate brands with an innovative solution to the enormous problem of emergency healthcare transport in remote communities," said Linke.

An expert from America who has a Master's Degree in designing bicycles and bicycle trailers from a development context, Aaron Wieler, will be arriving in the country in October this year to take a look at the various designs from the different grassroots communities who handed in their proposals and requests for bicycle ambulances.

Logistics planning is still under way in getting the resources and funds together for this manufacturing plant to become a reality.

As a non-profit organisation, BEN Namibia aims to empower disadvantaged Namibians through providing sustainable transport and bicycle-related income generation opportunities.

It mostly imports second-hand bicycles, parts and accessories from overseas charities and refurbishes them by employing and training local people in bike mechanics.

So far it has received more than 1 600 bicycles from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom and more than 600 bicycles were delivered through a network of community-based organisations that run home based care projects, providing health care. With these bicycles, home-based caregivers visit their clients, spend longer time with each one and deliver more supplies. Thus bicycles benefit the caregivers, people living with HIV/Aids and their families.

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