Bernard Kiwia

At a glance

Interests:Low-cost technologies, design for the other 90%, alternative energies, access to water and human rights
Projects: 2004-present: Advisor to Aqua Welfare Society for the construction of modified dug wells.
2008-present: Low-cost Chlorine Doser with no moving parts and requiring no electricity
2007-2008: Treadle Pump Electricity
2006-2008: Electricity for Domestic Lighting from Human Powered Vehicles

Pedal-Powered Hacksaw in Ghana




Bernard Kiwia is a Tanzanian bicycle mechanic turned into a prolific inventor. He spends most of his time in his hometown of Arusha, in the Kilimanjaro region, working as an engineer for social enteprise Global Cycle Solutions. When not designing the company's next product, or tinkering in his workshop, Bernard may come to D-Lab as Designer-In-Residence, participate in the International Development Design Summit or present at Maker Fair Africa.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in this field?

I have always had the desire to do something for the people less fortunate than myself. At the time when I decided to quit my formal job, a pressing issue caught my attention: the presence of arsenic in ground water, a problem that still remains a critical issue in many areas of Southeast Asia. Then, I started visiting villages in West Bengal to collect information about water contamination, and I slowly realized that I could make good use of my engineering knowledge to help my fellow rural countrymen. I also realized that I would not make myself rich overnight, but the personal satisfaction of working in this field far outweighs the limitations that come with it.

What projects have you worked on?

At the time when I was visiting rural villages to find out more about arsenic contamination of water, I became aware that the villagers were facing many other problems. Among the many issues they were facing on their daily lives, I picked on the lack of access to electricity, because it related to my field of expertise. Thus, my first project, code named Firefly, was about capturing some of the energy that rickshaw drivers generate as they pedal around town in the form of electricity for household lighting. The goal was to provide an alternative to kerosene lamps: a recurring expenditure that provides a very dim and inadequate light, and is also a health and fire hazard. The process not only combines the generation of power with the daily routine of the villagers, but also drastically reduces the capital cost to nearly 50% when compared to a solar powered lamp of equivalent output. You can see video footage about this project on the right.

Throughout the years, I have also worked in a hand pump, a hand powered cell phone charger and, more recently, an automated chlorine doser that contains no moving parts.

What is your motivation to work in this field?

I can separate two different drivers for my motivation in my everyday work. First, is the joy of creation. There is something addictive about tackling hard problems: you cannot stop thinking about how to solve them, day and night; until you come up with a potential solution, you sketch it, prototype it, test it; and you get a very intense fulfillment when you realize that it will work. Then you want to start again, address a harder problem.

To explain the second driver, I'll refer to an experience I had, related to my first project. When the cycle driver lit up the the new lights for the first time, his face was far brighter with awe and satisfaction than the LEDs. Seeing his face was my reward; I enjoy giving myself to the people.

How does innovation start?

It does not always start in your brain, but in your heart. Once it emerges, you work with your mind and skills to work on a given solution. Many different problems bug me everyday, from seeing what all these people need, and those problems are the raw material for inspiration to occur.

How do you like spending your free time?

I enjoy swimming, reading and spending time on the Internet searching. I am interested in learning how things work, taking interest in small things, and jumping from one subject into another. I also spend time with email, keeping in touch with family and friends. 

As a matter of fact, the entire time is free for me. I do whatever I feel like doing, like tinkering with new ideas or working on my latest project. I spend time at a friend's workshop using their machinery for prototyping. Last but not least, I do whatever is required to put food on the table for my family. 

Related Information

Bernard Kiwia

Low Technologies,
High Aims

New York Times

(...) Bernard Kiwia, who teaches bicycle repair in rural Tanzania and hopes to offer women there an easier way to tote the precious liquid for long distances.

Bernard Kiwia

Fast, cheap, and in control

The Boston Globe

Back home on the arid plains of Tanzania, Bernard Kiwia works as a mechanic and electrician. But early this week, he labored in a basement lab at MIT (..) His task was to design and build a low-cost method of transporting and purifying water in his home country.

Suprio Das

D-Lab: Design hosts Tanzanian inventor Bernard Kiwia

Bernard has strong opinions about what it takes to become an inventor: don't make things for somebody else, think of yourself as the user, assume that you will be somewhere in Africa, and this device will help you while you are over there.