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Framing Dignity

Monday, Apr. 16, 2012

Whirlwind Wheelchair International designs sturdy, low cost wheelchairs that are built and used in developing countries. Whirlwind has trained wheelchair users and community members for 25 years on how to build and repair these wheelchairs in local workshops using locally available materials. Unlike the traditional wheelchairs designed for a hospital, the Roughrider is tough enough to negotiate the bumpy surfaces of rural and slum environments, where typical chairs tip over. They apply technologies from US mountain bikes to help people who are socially excluded in the developing world. Whirlwind extends its innovations through a network of social enterprises and local organizations. Whirlwind Wheelchair International graduated from the GSBI in 2006.

 Our GSBI alumni are restless. They are not content with the innovations they brought to GSBI. They continue to improve, invent, and imagine. To match that spirit, the Center has just launched the Global Social Benefit Fellowship. Santa Clara University undergraduates work with GSBI alumni to learn from them and to support them with research. In early April, two Global Social Benefit Fellows visited Whirlwind Wheelchair’s headquarters in San Francisco to discover how they might help this international organization.

 Whirlwind is expanding its mission from providing a service to those excluded by society, to providing an entrepreneurial framework for those same people to start their own microbusiness. To do this, they are applying what they have learned about rugged wheelchairs to the creation of adult-sized tricycles that can carry small goods for sale, such as stamps, snacks, drinks, or lottery tickets. Push-cart vending is ubiquitous in the developing world. A trike opens up this economic niche for those unable to walk. This reframes Whirlwind’s strategy: from designing a mobility device --> to creating a microenterprise platform so that the socially excluded can earn an income.
Keoke King, director of marketing at Whirlwind, demonstrates where micro-entrepreneurs will carry their goods for sale on a very early prototype of the tricycle
Aaron Wieler, director of R&D at Whirlwind, explains the research opportunities
This is where our fellows, Nate Funkhouser and Stella Tran, can help. Microfinance institutions usually make smaller loans than the price of a tricycle, but if Whirlwind can make the case for extending credit to potential buyers, then this innovation could really take off. Microcredit is extended to those who want to buy push-carts, so why not for a mobility device plus microenterprise platform? Nate and Stella will investigate the economic landscape of push-carts, trikes, and microfinance, and research the best ways to make a business case for these kinds of loans.

Whirlwind challenges us to recognize that those who cannot walk can still live a life of dignity. They often cannot do this on their own, but technology can help. The physical framework of the trike provides a platform for the disabled to participate in the economic life of their society. Our task now is to reframe the thinking of economic institutions so that they can fulfill the potential of this technology to extend dignity to aspiring entrepreneurs.

For a great video on Whirlwind Wheelchair International watch: 

Keith Douglass Warner OFM is a San Francisco native, a Franciscan Friar, and the   director of Education in the Center. 



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Nate and Stella investigate the functionality of the roughrider

Tags: GSBF


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