The story of Namuleme Hadija is not different from that of many women in Uganda’s rural areas. She is a mother of four from the Nakisunga Mukono District. I met her while taking an evening walk in the countryside. I was immediately struck by her strong physique and serious demeanour as she carried a bulk of fire wood on her head, a polyethene bag of garden food in her arm and her baby strapped to her back. I instinctively felt compelled to stop and chat with her.
Our conversation was a real eye-opener. Hadija told me she was the main breadwinner of her family. As a tree logger, her husband could no longer support the family. She maintained a small, one-acre subsistence farm in which she could obtain food for her family while getting minimal income from her cow and goat keeping. Making charcoal was a pivotal activity for her to earn school fees for her children. She made 50,000 USh (13 USD) for every sack of charcoal she sold and occasionally, she was able to sell about 10 bags every three months. She also engaged in sharecropping with many mothers from her village, working for large farm owners who provided them with seedlings, fertilisers and pesticides for growing maize, rice and cereals during different crop seasons. They received 25% to 30% share of the total yields. Occasionally, she also invested in making burnt bricks.
As we departed, I asked her about her mobility needs. In addition to long-distance walking, her trips were centred around motorised means. From fetching firewood or water to transporting cash crops to the market and other commercial dealings, she needed to hire a motorcycle or a car which was very expensive and unsustainable, both for her and the environment.
As I continued my walk, I pondered about my encounter with this mother and realised that her livelihood is intertwined with the immediate natural environment. Without the provision of mother nature, her life would have become even more difficult. However, her job and mobility activities were environmentally unsustainable and ecologically unfriendly. Women like Hadija are at the frontline of Africa’s grassroot ecological economy. Making charcoal, collecting firewood, cutting down timber for burning bricks and planting rice in the swamps depend heavily on motorised transport. Hadija was in conflict with nature, and unknowingly, her way of survival contributed to climate change.
As the Executive Director of the First African Bicycle Organisation (FABIO), a promoter for cycling and a contributor to a greener world and sustainable mobility, I have seen first-hand through our projects (e.g. cycling to school, cycling for healthcare and others) on how walking and cycling are critical to address mobility challenges faced by women while contributing to the country’s emissions reduction targets.
FABIO, in collaboration with the European Institute for Sustainable Transport, has designed an solar-powered electric bicycle called “AFricroozE” with a carriage capacity of 150kg and battery range of 30km to 50km. This emission-free electric mobility alternative is comparable to a motorcycle and can easily be used by both men and women in rural and urban communities. This innovation not only empowers women like Hadija but also impacts the environment and society in so many ways:
- Poverty alleviation and zero hunger: In the commercial sector, electric bikes can create jobs and income by enabling vendors to sell their home-made goods at a market or by using them as taxis. This enhances the economic independence of users. “The e-bike has offered a solution to the rising fuel costs. At least I can now save a reasonable amount of money,” said Bwambale, a delivery man in Jinja City.
- Gender equality and women empowerment: Via joint use of several households, electric bikes multiply their positive effects for elderly people, women’s groups or farmers. “With my e-bike, I reach my clients on time. The bike is efficient with less mechanical issues, fast and comfortable and now my back no longer aches. My savings increased from 2000 USh (16.4 USD) a day to at least 6000 USh (49.3 USD) a day,” said Nabirye Rose, a mother of two and a resident of Buyala, Njeru.
- Health and access to clean water: AfricroozE can serve as ambulance bikes to save lives, especially expectant mothers and infants since two out of three births in Africa take place without medical help. It also ensures people living in remote villages have better access to clean water. Village health teams now have better access to government services with easier distributions of bilharzia and deworming tablets and wider coverage of COVID-19 vaccinations.
- Sustainable, low carbon mobility: It is an affordable zero-emission vehicle available to match with the rapid-growing mobility demands in the region.
- Noise reduction: AfricroozE are very quiet and therefore do not disturb the quietness in the village, leading to less victims of hearing loss, heart disease, learning problems in children and sleep disturbance.
- Accessible and affordable renewable energy: The solar service station, or “E-Hubs”, make renewable energy more accessible for entrepreneurs and low- to middle-income communities. Shipping containers are modified and changed into solar service stations, featuring photovoltaic and battery storage systems designed to support entrepreneurial hubs that meet the electricity, mobility and other basic community needs without using fossil fuels.
COP27 offers a valuable opportunity for parties to recognise that transport is often not gender-neutral. Women and men have different mobility needs and patterns that transport policy makers must acknowledge. Walking and cycling remain the major gender-sensitive mobility option in Africa and hence, there is an urgent need to adopt policy frameworks and increase financing for electrification in cycling to make it a safe, affordable and accessible option for all. Climate finance, commitments and pledges made at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt must prioritise the improvement of women’s mobility and access to economic opportunities to achieve win-win impacts.