Wheels for fortune
It is difficult for people with disabilities to access mobility equipment in remote areas of Africa. Statistics from the UN Development Programme show that less than 1 percent of the need for wheelchairs in developing countries can be met by the limited local production, and those wheelchairs that are available are often unsuitable for the rough roads and paths in rural locales.
“We live in Africa yet 80% of the wheelchairs used here were designed for use in Europe,” says Shona McDonald, founder of Shonaquip, a South African company, which has been supplying fit-for-purpose mobility equipment to children and adults with mobility disabilities for more than 20 years.
Based in Cape Town, the company designs and manufactures affordable modular seating systems and postural support equipment.
A R500,000 (US$55,000) grant from the SAB Foundation’s Social Innovation Awards prize has allowed the company to develop a new postural support buggy and active posture support wheelchair.
The SAB Foundation was established in 2009 with the aim of contributing to the economic and social empowerment of historically disadvantaged communities. The Social Innovation Award was established as part of these activities with the objective of rewarding, commercialising and up scaling innovative, sustainable solutions to the pressing daily challenges facing low-income people, specifically women, the youth, people with disabilities and people living in rural areas in order to improve economic growth and general quality of life. They are focused on solutions which have progressed past idea stage and have reached at least proof of concept stage. Prizes are large – R1,000,000 (US$110,000) for the overall winner – to allow the best projects to attain substantive progress.
Shonaquip’s industrial designer Guillaume du Toit, and mechanical engineer Dan Martin have been developing the Madiba Postural Support Buggy (for children aged six months to 16 years) and Sully Active Kids wheelchair (for children aged two to 10) for over a year. The hardy pieces of equipment are made of a combination of steel and aluminium with off-road wheels and a unique flat pack design suited for export and off site assembly.
At first glance the chairs look deceptively simple but Du Toit and Martin insist that successful, good design often appears uncomplicated. “They are complex in technical design as they have to work – people’s lives depend on them and we are responsible for every decision we make,” says Du Toit. The products have passed the South African Bureau of Standards endurance tests, and production is underway at Shonaquip's Wynberg factory.
“With the Sully Active and the Madiba buggy, we have ensured that the equipment is designed in a way that ensures easy setup, adjustment and individual fit and is suitable for rugged use by people living in the most challenging terrain, and is long lasting, cost efficient and can be assembled in small local workshops,” said McDonald.
Shonaquip has expanded operations into neighbouring countries. In supplying equipment to neighbouring, developing countries such as Zimbabwe, the company will train local people to assess, fit, modify, adapt and maintain each chair. “wheelchairs are like a set of false teeth, each one needs to be fitted and is unique to its user,” McDonald said.
Shonaquip was established to fulfil a need for mobility devices that had only been filled by non-profit organisations. Shona’s second daughter was born with cerebral palsy in 1982, disabled, unable to speak and almost totally deaf. Determined to make a life for her daughter, Shona saw a picture of a special seating support electric wheelchair in a Swedish magazine and contacted the Bio-medical Engineering Department at the University of Cape Town to help her build a similar buggy but suitable for uneven South African terrain.
Today, Shonaquip together with its Foundation have directly impacted the lives of over 67,000 children and expect this to increase to significantly to 700 000 over the next 6 years An equal opportunity employer, 25% of Shonaquip’s 50-strong workforce has disabilities.