Friday, October 6, 2006
Gwyn Jones delivers pedal power to Guatemala
Jones has always been mechanically oriented. After studying business at Hampshire College, he and two friends started a company called Merlin Metalworks, first in Somerville and then in Cambridge, designing and building titanium bikes. During a time when cycling was becoming very popular, Merlin Metalworks was in the forefront of the industry, producing exciting new designs and material concepts. "Product development has always been my favorite thing," said Jones. He enjoys taking things apart and putting them back together, making them better, stronger or more efficient. His home workshop is a testament to his love of tinkering. As he showed me around, he pointed out various projects in numerous stages of completion. His chief complaint is that he's always running out of space in his shop.
"I thought about building wooden boats which is extremely satisfying yet somewhat disengaged from the world," he recalls. "Ultimately, you end up making beautiful things for wealthy people to have, but it's a narrow slice of life." Jones wanted more than that. He wanted to be a part of something that would have a greater impact on the state of the world.
Finding the right project
Early last year, Jones found what he had been looking for. After listening to a radio interview with Amy Smith, co-founder of the International Development Initiative at MIT, he contacted her. When she learned about his experience in the bicycle business, she put him touch with an MIT student group that was working on Maya Pedal projects. He attended several meetings and was impressed with the students, the work they were doing and the organization itself. He signed on as a volunteer for Maya Pedal and also began working at MIT as a staff member advising students on third-world issues.
Maya Pedal is located in San Andres Itzapa, a rural community in the department of Chimaltenango. The organization is committed to helping farmers increase their productivity by utilizing traditional technologies that contribute to environmental conservation instead of polluting it. Their mission is to support the basic family economy, through the design and distribution of bicycle machines, providing an efficient alternative to cars for the rural development of Guatemala.
Improvements on traditional technologies have created a use for recycled bicycles. Used bikes are taken apart and welded back together as pedal-powered machines such as a grain grinder, generator or a water pump. The simplicity of the design is what makes this program work. There is no money for costly repairs for modern machinery. There are no parts to repair it with, nor a repairman to fix it. In most cases, there is no electricity to even operate modern equipment. Bike machines, or bicimaquinas as they are called, are easy to repair and many parts are universal. It requires little more than a wrench and some welding to turn used bike parts into functional and efficient machinery that can increase the productivity of small-scale, self-sustainable projects.
MIT students visited Chimaltenango in December 2004. Then they entered the MIT IDEAS Competition, which encourages teams to develop and implement projects that make a positive change in the world. In May 2005, the students were awarded a $5,000 prize for the design and creation of a bicilavadora, a washing machine with a wash cycle, two rinse cycles and a spin-dry cycle. Because women in Chimaltenango still wash clothes by hand, which is extremely time- consuming, this machine could save many hours each week.
Unique bicycle-machine designs
Saving time is one benefit of bike machines to the Mayan people, Jones observes. Grinding corn for feed used to be a backbreaking job, he notes, and describes the process. The cobs are first beaten with a stick to loosen the grains, then each grain is handpicked from the cob, and finally they are ground into feed with a hand-cranked mill. Twenty-five sacks of corn would normally take a whole week to grind. With the new machinery, grinding is done in less than a day and a half. This leaves time to grind feed for neighboring farms for a small fee, which then gives the farmer a return on his investment.
Although this technology has existed for more than two decades, Maya Pedal has created unique bicycle-machine designs, according to Jones. One of the most popular and useful machines is the aforementioned bicycle mill/corn degrainer. The bike is adapted to fit a manual mill and degrainer, typically used for milling yellow maize and soya beans to make feed for chickens and pigs. For the farmers, milling their own feed eliminates the need to use agro-industrial chemicals, allowing them to achieve 100% organic production.
In many Guatemalan rural communities, electricity and water are not available. The bicycle water pump can provide water for irrigation and drinking, pumping water at five to ten gallons per minute from depths of up to 30 meters. Electric pumps can only pump up to 12 meters deep.
Another machine that has great potential for a small business is the micro-concrete vibrator which makes roofing tiles. It produces long-lasting, impermeable concrete that is molded into roof tiles. It is inexpensive to produce and provides a more durable and better insulating product than the traditionally used corrugated metal. Other useful machines include the bicycle coffee depulper which can process up to 100 pounds of coffee beans in 15 minutes, the bicycle nut sheller and the bicycle metal sharpener.
Jones describes two machines that are still in the prototype phase: the bicycle washing machine that was introduced in the IDEAS Competition and the bicycle electricity generator. Once they are completed, they will have a large impact on these rural communities. The electric generator, for example, will be able to generate 12 volts of power to run appliances.
"Engineering students from MIT are excited to be working on some of these projects," says Jones. They hope to complete more designs, assist with developing a culture of management and create training manuals which Maya Pedal can use to teach local residents the art of building and repairing bicycle machines.
Maya Pedal is the largest bike-recycling program of its kind and is completely run by an indigenous community. However, it has not been easy. Twice, since Jones began volunteering, the organization has almost fallen apart. First, the unexpected departure of the director created a great void and then the effects of Hurricane Stan in October 2005. Just before the storm, Maya Pedal had completed its largest order of machines that were being purchased by another Guatemalan NGO to be distributed at cost to local farmers. The devastating effects of the hurricane caused the order to be cancelled. Work at Maya Pedal ceased as the community pitched in to clean up after the storm.
Once again Maya Pedal is moving forward. In January, Jones will accompany another group of MIT students to Guatemala. He expects this trip will be heavily influenced by the experience and interests of the students. The group consists of a mix of undergraduate and graduate students in science, engineering, economics and business. "Part of the purpose of this trip will be to visit other organizations and development projects," said Jones. "We would also like to spend some time in the countryside and in markets, exposing the students to the context in which local people live."
Asked where he would like to see Maya Pedal in ten years, Jones replied, "I don't want to be in a position to set a vision for them. What's really useful is when there are things that they need that they can define and I'm able to assist them with and projects that we can work on together." He added, "A friend of mine often reminds me that all six and a half billion of us are sharing one spaceship for the foreseeable future. We need to learn more about how to take care of it and each other, in order for any of us to have reasonable prospects in the medium and long term."
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito