Does building roads for bikes, not cars, bring more benefit to rural Africa?

Motorbike tracks may be better than paved roads as a way of linking poor areas in rural Africa, according to research currently under way at Swansea University, which looks specifically at Liberia, one of the world’s poorest countries. In a related project, University engineering students are working with Liberian counterparts to design motorbike trailers.

Better transport infrastructure, allowing easier movement for goods and people, is needed in rural areas within many developing countries.  Good transport links give communities access to essential services such as healthcare, education and markets, as well as increasing job opportunities.

The conventional thinking, amongst governments and international donors, has been that better transport means building or repairing paved roads which are accessible to cars and larger vehicles.

However, the Swansea research, led by Dr Krijn Peters in the College of Arts and Humanities, is amassing evidence that investing in tracks for motorbikes may bring wider benefits. 

Motorcycle taxis have spread rapidly across West Africa in the past decade or so, especially in the wake of the civil wars which decimated the region, leaving many roads damaged or destroyed.

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Picture:  A Liberian motor taxi, driven by one of the Pink Panthers, a female riders' collective.  BBC picture essay on the Pink Panthers. 

Dr Krijn Peters of Swansea University College of Arts and Humanities explained why bikes may be best:

“The motorbikes have some important advantages over traditional 4-wheel car and minibus taxis.  In the difficult terrain of rural Liberia, they can travel off-road, even along muddy footpaths, to collect passengers and cargo from otherwise isolated villages.

The bikes are also significantly cheaper than 4–wheel drive vehicles, which means more people can afford them.  Building and maintaining bike tracks is cheaper than building paved roads, and would provide much-needed jobs in the local communities, where there are many ex-combatants from the civil war with expertise in motorbikes.  

Road-building, giving access for large vehicles, can also bring unwanted consequences such as deforestation.   It is also possible that it was a factor in the spread of the Ebola epidemic, which is thought to have originated in infected bushmeat or exposure to wild animals, and which devastated the region.”

Dr Peters, with the help of Jack Jenkins, a PhD student funded by a Swansea University scholarship, is evaluating the results of some pilot schemes, as well as gathering other evidence to inform the debate.  Dr Peters’ research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development.

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Picture:  Globe showing Liberia.  Courtesy:  TUBS, Wikimedia Commons

The obvious disadvantage of motorbikes is that they can carry a lot less than a four-wheel drive vehicle.  Market traders, for example, need to be able to carry a lot of produce.   

This is where a second project involving Swansea University experts comes in.   College of Engineering students, working under the supervision of Dr Rajesh Ransing, are collaborating  with counterparts in Liberia to design trailers that are capable of handling the tough terrain of rural Liberia, and which can be constructed from locally available scrap materials and by local mechanics.

The aim is to increase the amount the bikes can carry – their payload – and reduce their disadvantage in this area compared to cars.

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Picture: Chief engineer Jim Clarke, who works for Cardno in Liberia, with the Swansea students who are designing motorbike trailers

The Swansea students carrying out this work are following undergraduate and Masters courses in Engineering.   The project is an interdisciplinary module run by the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Engineering, with an industry partner, Cardno.

The best designs will be built by fellow engineering students at the Stella Maris Polytechnic in Monrovia, Liberia, funded by a recently secured Swansea University Research Innovation Fund grant.  Then local mechanics will be given the necessary materials and trained in how to build the trailers.

The Swansea students plan to visit Liberia in March to work on the project with their counterparts in the country, a trip partly funded by the College of Engineering.

College of Arts and Humanities

College of Engineering