ACCRA: Ghanaian children living in villages throughout the Volta region must swim or for forge at least one river daily to reach the nearest school – holding tightly onto basins with their uniforms and books. This commute is particularly dangerous during the rainy season, three months every year, when the currents run high and strong.
Over the past several decades, flooding has become one of the most harmful natural hazards in the Volta River Basin. In 2018 alone, more than 30,000 people in at least 225 communities in the Upper East and North regions have endured floods. Although no direct correlation can be made to flooding, these regions also report the lowest overall primary and secondary school attendance rates in Ghana. Not all the children know how to swim in the flood-affected regions. Those who cannot swim usually ford streams by holding onto logs and bending tree branches, risking a fall and the waters carrying them away. Children are often late for classes and tired. In some cases, parents decide that crossing rivers is too dangerous, so they simply refuse to allow their children to attend school.
Frank Darko, a 27-year-old Ghanaian man, was moved to action in 2017, after seeing a documentary and news reports about the children’s plight. He invented a water bicycle to help children and others living in river regions to traverse bodies of water. “There are no canoes to carry them,” he notes. “But even if there is a canoe, it is very risky as it can capsize at any time putting the life of the children in danger. The water cycle is designed to be stable on the water.”
He called his invention Chario, a name inspired by the word chariot, a carriage driven primarily through horsepower, and insists the rig is safer than a canoe. It took him more than one year to come up with the concept and design the water cycle. He had other ideas at first, including building a bridge, but these proved to be beyond his financial capabilities.
Such entrepreneurial endeavors are far from singular in Ghana. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report based on a countrywide survey of more than 1,200 young people, 66 percent of young Ghanaians have started their own business. Most operate in the informal sector due to cost and lack of market access. The median age in Africa is around 20. More than 35 percent of Ghana’s population is under the age of 14 – compared to the global average of 25 percent. In Ghana, as in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, this is partly due to the government’s inability to provide jobs for its citizens as well as an increasing demand for local innovative solutions by banks, insurance companies and manufacturing firms.
The invention could be useful in throughout Ghana, as many communities contend with heavy rainfall and flooding. During the two rainy seasons, in spring and autumn, children and workers often cannot reach their daily destinations. The Chario could also be useful in other countries facing similar problems, including Togo and Benin or India.
Darko used aluminum, wood and a propeller as well as cork which keeps the Chario afloat. With no financial support from either investors or the government, Darko invested around $100 out of his pocket to develop the cycle. Again, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report, this is not unusual in Ghana, with 90 percent of the young people surveyed indicating that they had not received government or private support.
The Chario is easy to operate, and Darko says there is no need to know how to ride a bike. Other people, including a popular radio anchor, tested the water cycle at sea, although children in the Volta region have yet to try out the Chario.
The young entrepreneur is currently perfecting his model. The current version only accommodates one person, and he plans for the next one to ferry five people: “Four at the back and the rider. The children are not going to ride the machine by themselves. Someone will carry them to and fro on the water surface. They will be at the back and the rider in front, just like a regular chariot.”
For his next version, he wants to use including stainless steel, mahogany, leather and kapok – a tropical tree native to West Africa – more expensive, durable materials for water-resistance. For the new model, he is immersing the propeller to avoid splashing water onto the children or driver. This will make the device faster, lighter and more efficient. This time, he hopes to attract financial supporters for his efforts.
Darko lives in Takoradi in the Western Region of Ghana. During his final year of studies at the Takoradi Technical University, where he studied graphic design, personal financial challenges disrupted his education. In response to his invention, though, the university awarded Darko a full scholarship, giving him the opportunity to finish his studies and conceptualize inventions that might contribute to solving challenges faced by Ghanaian society and the world. The university also expressed interest in supporting Darko in improving his water cycle – and established an entrepreneurial and innovation incubator to assist all its students to explore their creative ideas and transform them into business ventures. As mentioned by former US President Barack Obama during the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, “entrepreneurship creates new jobs and new businesses, new ways to deliver basic services, new ways of seeing the world — it is the spark of prosperity.”
Darko says that he would be proud to employ other Ghanaians and contribute to reducing the unemployment toll in his country, described as a major driver for migration and brain drain. Ghana’s official unemployment rate is 2.5 percent nationwide, with the youth unemployment rate more than double that, while the literacy rate is about 80 percent and GDP per capita is about $1,800. The water cycle is the young Ghanaian’s first invention, but he already has several ideas for others, including using unconventional materials in the fashion industry as a designer, that he is eager to explore.
Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist focused on women’s and children’s rights, refugee and human rights issues, and peace and post-conflict reconstruction. She graduated from the University of Oxford with an Msc in Refugees and Forced Migration after studying international affairs at Vassar College. She founded the nonprofit organization Save South Kordofan. Follow her on Twitter.