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Whose road is it, anyway?

Ox cart in MadagascarDonkeys, their panniers piled high with forage and fuelwood cut from distant fields, follow steep, narrow paths that twist and turn across a hillside in Ethiopia. Ox carts trundle slowly along the track in Madagascar, their big, metal-rimmed wooden wheels making a characteristic creaking sound that warns of their approach. Their high axles cope well with the deep furrows scoured by flash floods out of the orange-red laterite roads. For rural farmers from Albania to Zimbabwe, animals provide a perfect 'intermediate' solution to transport needs.

'Intermediate' refers to those means of transport that come between simple walking and carrying, and a large motor vehicle. Animal drawn transport, as well as bicycles, barrows, rickshaws, and many other devices for moving people and goods, falls within the category. Contrary to common perception, it does not mean a stage in technology that all must pass through to become 'developed'. Animals in both developed and developing countries often form an essential cog in the wheels of efficient transport and marketing systems and they work happily alongside newer technologies. An order placed most conveniently by mobile phone may be fulfilled most efficiently by donkey. If only policy makers and planners could accept the simple fact that using animals is in many ways forward thinking, rather than backward. Pack animals and farm carts complement tarmac roads Transport connections in Kenyaand long distance road haulage by truck. Together they make a practical, integrated 'feeder-hub' system of transport that benefits rural farmers and the rural economy. But decisions made in high places by powerful people looking for prestige tend to ignore animal drawn transport. The voice of the smallholder too often remains unheard.

Pulling power
It is not only the driven animals that must pull together. Planners and regulators, road engineers and road users need to work together to solve problems. A common one is how to overcome the damage that metal-rimmed wooden cartwheels do to new road surfaces. In Cambodia, Bangladesh and Myanmar, for example, some authorities have tried to ban all but pneumatic tyres. Madagascar was set to do the same but the ban has been put on hold, at least for the time being. Farmers, very unusually, had the opportunity to point out to transport planners that if they were prohibited from taking their ox carts, with their wooden wheels, on to the road, the road would be virtually empty since they were, in practice, almost the only users. Pneumatic tyres are not always a realistic option. Wooden cartwheels are cheaper, easily available in the villages,Pneumatic tyres are the norm in Malawi last ten to twenty years and never get a puncture. They have a very good braking system and the high clearance needed on the lesser, unmade roads and cart tracks. In India, numerous carts still have wooden wheels even though pneumatic tyres have been available since the 1950s.

Harnessing a critical mass
If subsistence farmers are to make their way into the market economy, they need transport. But animal transport requires infrastructure in the same way that motorized transport does. Instead of petrol stations and car mechanics, animal transport needs vets, blacksmiths, cartmakers, wheelwrights and harness makers. But poor, rural, isolated farmers are not an attractive business proposition for entrepreneurial service providers. A critical mass of users is required to make such services profitable for which lateral thinking may be required. In Mali, as in other francophone West African countries, markets take place on a regular day of the week in places 20 to 30km apart. This is an easy distance by animal transport and a harness maker, for example, has access to potential new customers every day of the week. The static market with its limited catchment, as is more common in eastern and southern Africa, may be insufficient to provide a livelihood. Development plans that think in terms of markets may be more effective than development plans that think only in terms of providing services for animal drawn transport.

It's not the donkey's fault
In Cuba, drivers of motor vehicles respect slower, animal drawn road users and most will wait patiently until it is safe to overtake. But Cuba has a well-educated population and regulations are an accepted part of life. For example, operators of horse-drawn transport services must obtain and produce on demand, certificates confirming legitimate ownership of the animals and their good health. Far more common in most of the world are the bus, truck and other drivers who overtake, regardless of hazards, any animal drawn transport that 'gets in the way'. Accident rates are appalling and too often it is the humble ox cart or laden donkey that unfairly gets the blame. Road planners must find ways of coping with all road users but when, as in Uganda as recently as 2001, there are twenty road engineers for every transport planner/regulator, it seems more convenient to ignore the needs of slower road users. Separated slow lanes are an obvious solution but regulations are needed to prevent encroachment by roadside trading stalls. Enforcing legislation requiring all forms of transport to have reflectors would also help to reduce accidents.

Animal drawn transport may well become more widespread (see Focus On: Trends in traction). Planners should listen out for the sounds of approaching cartwheels.

For further information, see:
'Local transport solutions for rural development' by Paul Starkey featured in New Agriculturist 03-1 In Print and at

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1st July 2003