THE Bicycling Empowerment Network Namibia (BENN) is planning to start building 30 solar-powered electric bike ambulances for villages in Namibia and Zambia in February next year, that will help thousands of rural women, men and children to gain access to healthcare in medical emergencies.
The fleet of electrically assisted bicycle ambulance trailers will be designed for the thick sand and thorns of Namibia and charged by solar-powered recharging stations.
They will be managed by local healthcare facilities, and provide emergency health transport in areas that have never before had access, therefore saving many lives in childbirth and treatment of illnesses such as malaria, HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis.
According to BENN's managing director, Mike Linke, the first bicycle ambulance prototype was built in 2005 and turned into a project where the design and build of a bicycle-pulled ambulance trailer improved.
BENN has since built 120 non-motorised bicycle ambulances that are working well, and saving lives.
"Namibia's maternal mortality rate of 200 deaths per 100 000 live births is 20 times higher than that of the UK.
"The dire lack of transport to access healthcare is similarly urgent in many sub-Saharan African countries, and few affordable, sustainable solutions are currently being tested or implemented.
"I met one clinic nurse who told me he rescued a man with one of our ambulances after a knife fight, his intestines hanging out of his body. Miraculously he survived," said Linke.
Challenges for the first ambulances included the lack of wider tyres and the distances involved.
The only affordable option for motorising a bike at that time was a petrol motorbike, but there was no money in villages for fuel or maintenance.
BENN teamed up with local Namibian partners, SunCycles to adapt to an original ambulance, which had mountain bike tyres, to a set-up that has durable motorbike tyres, and is pulled by an electric bicycle."
The new planned fleet of bicycle ambulances will be distributed to Namibian and Zambian partners and will have a catchment area of thousands of people.
Linke says if each of the ambulances provide two ways of transport per day for 300 days of the year, 18 000 people who would otherwise face serious complications or even death, could be safely and comfortably taken to the hospital to receive treatment.
The riders of the bicycles will still pedal, like with a normal bike, but there will now be a motor and battery to give some assistance.
The battery can be recharged by a solar electric system so that it can deal with remote areas.
The improved tyres and motor mean that thick sand, thorns and long distances are no longer such an issue.
Hilya Ekandjo who is involved in the testing of the bicycle at Okafitu, Omusati region, says it is easier and faster to ride the bikes than the old ones.
" It can even go to 50km per hour. It does not even matter if it is a woman or old person riding it. The motor and thick tyres make a difference," she said.
Ekandjo says people have also started ordering the bicycles for business purposes as it is challenging to get taxies.
The first four prototypes are already built, with funding from UK Charity Transaid and are currently being tested.
BENN is now running a crowd-funding campaign on Global Giving, an international platform, and is in the top 20 out of 624 projects from all around the world.
Linke hopes to get support from Namibians in pledging for the ambulances.
"We hope that the Ministry of Health and Social Services will see value in the ambulances and support operators, perhaps on a per delivery basis.
"We also like MoHSS to refer e-ambulances when they receive emergency calls. We need donations! It's a few minutes of time and a little money, but every donation helps us get closer to delivering another ambulance and saving more lives.
"We'd also like to hear from people and interested organisations in hosting an ambulance." He said.
The bicycles that will be built by Fresh Minded Investment at Walvis Bay will cost about N$16 000 per ambulance.