Electric transport: Leaving no woman behind

When people talk of women empowerment or come up with brilliant innovative start-ups that empower members of the gentle sex, they tend to prioritise those in urban areas while marginalising their rural counterparts.

And yet both have great potential in transforming economies in the world.

Celebrating rural women last year, United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres emphasised that the empowerment of rural women and girls is essential to building a prosperous, equitable and peaceful future for all on a healthy planet, adding that it is needed for achieving gender equality, ensuring decent work for all, and eradicating poverty and hunger.
Taking the secretary-general’s words seriously, an Aussie humanitarian worker Shantha Bloemen who is also the founding director for Mobility for Africa, has decided to test the waters by channelling her energy towards empowering rural women in Wedza, Mashonaland East as a starting point in creating local and vibrant rural economies in Africa.
Working alongside her partners from Mobility for Africa whose aim is to create community-based renewable transport solutions for Sub Saharan Africa, Bloemen took it upon herself to import the first batch of solar-charged electric tricycles from China and introduce them to rural women in Wedza District for mobility and an ease of doing business.
Speaking to the Daily News on Sunday, Bloemen said in rural Zimbabwe, women and girls are responsible for water and firewood collection as most households do not have direct access to drinking water and electricity, adding that the strenuous journey often takes several hours and poses many safety risks.
“There is a revolution going on in electric transport with huge improvements in battery technology and renewable energy. This innovation should not bypass rural women in Africa as they need mobility more than anyone else. We believe we can bring social disruption that can ultimately bring social transformation,” Bloemen said.
“Rural women still carry an enormous burden of raising children, providing livelihoods for their families, and contributing to their community. Yet so much of their busy days are spent managing long distances.
“My hope with mobility for Africa is we can start investing in solutions tailored to their needs that can help improve their quality of life for their families.”
According to an observation made by the UN in rural areas, women are more likely to fend for their families with whatever benefit they get from farming.
“There is a lot of talk in the development space about gender and how to improve women’s well-being. We need to focus now on practical solutions that can ultimately transform their lives,” Bloemen said.
She added that the electric tricycle pilot programme will allow her team to access the performance of the vehicles so that the next batch would be adjusted accordingly if need be, and that Mobility for Africa in partnership with Chinese university students and Midlands State University students are working on manufacturing the tricycles locally, which will create employment and boost business.
Speaking during the pilot programme launch in Wedza at Shaka Farm, Mobility for Africa director, Felicity Tawangwa said the initiative is in line with government’s call of empowering women and rural development.
“The aim of this initiative is ambitious yet we believe that by providing mobility solutions targeted in transforming the way women move in rural areas, productivity will increase and the quality of life in rural areas can be improved,” Tawangwa said.
“The aim is to create local and vibrant rural economies that stimulate new opportunities and improve the quality of life for poor communities.”
Research has shown that of the 45 percent of the world’s population that is rural based, women in those areas face a disproportionate amount of marginalisation and poverty.
Transport and lnfrastructural Development deputy minister Fortune Chasi believes that the launch of this pilot programme in Wedza, which is expected to spread throughout rural Zimbabwe and Africa is a first step in empowering women and involving them in economic development.
“Women often bear the brunt of transporting goods from point A to point B. Some transport firewood and water while tying their babies on their backs which makes the whole process difficult and strenuous,” Chasi said.
“With the tricycles put in place, women will now be able to carry their loads without any hustles and be empowered to go by their daily routines without much stress.”
Chasi added that Wedza is a community that thrives on farming and the scarce means of transport forces women to deliver their produce on foot posing limitations to their deliveries and others struggling to get their produce to markets on time.
“These tricycles will play a pivotal role in transportation and l hope more women will take advantage of the opportunity,” he said.
Mobility for Africa second director who identified herself as Celani applauded the noble idea which she attributed to be the brainchild of Bloemen who is said to have developed an appreciation of rural women’s challenges when she first volunteered in rural Zambia at the age of 23.
“While volunteering in rural Zambia, Shantha had to do all the chores that women in that area did, she had to fetch her own water as well. She found herself carrying the water bucket on her head and struggling to get home from the river with the bucket still full,” Celani said.
“All the hardships she encountered and observed women undergo in a rural set up made her develop a soft spot for these women and the desire to see them excelling in whatever  they do because of the resilience they show.”
While research shows that in most countries around the world, rural women and girls face daily challenges of access to sustainable infrastructure, services and social protection, UN women executive director,  Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka believes that the ubiquity of these challenges offers a large scope for change so that they no longer dominate and constrain women’s and girls’ lives.

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