Aid ProjectsCommunity ProjectsEnergy SystemsIrrigation

A Bicycle-Powered Water Pump (Malawi, Africa)

Sitting quietly at Butterfly, on the shores of Lake Malawi, it always struck me as odd when I would hear of people in the U.K. and the ‘leisure time’ they allotted themselves to keep fit. I found it stranger when people would want to do it while here on holiday, but each to their own. Living in a place like Malawi for over ten years you see the amount of physical exercise it takes for people to complete daily tasks, so I guess I have come to think like a Malawian in a way and cannot see the point in pointless exercise when there are so many necessary and productive reasons to do it. Why not harness this energy and other forms of exercise to some kind of productive end?

I feel passionately about the need here in Malawi for more diverse food production, away from the constant of maize and its dependence on the once-yearly rains. Malawi, with the world’s 4th largest lake and its associated river system, is not a dry country, despite its six month long dry season. This water is never fully utilised, but the potential is massive to provide for a year round, diverse, nutritional agriculture that would give all Malawians a healthy start in life. The problem, in one of the poorest countries in the world, is moving the water. Electricity is scarce, fuel is expensive — at about a day’s wage for a litre — and treadle pumps, a more low-tech alternative, have proved unpopular and difficult to use in the community.

The idea of a bicycle-powered water pump was born and I started thinking — why not have a ‘water gym’ that can use the energy exerted by people to pump water; an exercise bike, weights, rowing machine, all with the ability to move water. Another option was the roundabouts at schools, which could also utilise the kid’s playtime energy to move water. Realising I wasn’t an engineering expert I started to meet with a group at Sheffield University called Engineers without Borders. They were keen to link their students up with real projects in the ‘developing world’ that would give them real life problems to provide engineering solutions for, with the potential to make real time environmental benefits.

After looking into different possibilities, we thought that for us here in Nkhata Bay a bicycle-powered water pump would be the best approach, and after some research discovered that a lot of work had been done in this field by a group called Maya Pedal in Guatemala. Using a design from them, and a great deal of assistance from Alex Buckman, who built a prototype back in Sheffield, the first team of students came out in August 2013.

Adrian and Harry developed the first bicycle-powered pump here at Butterfly Space. They brought with them the one part that is difficult to source here — a broken centrifugal pump — but all the other materials were sourced here in Nkhata Bay.

Initial reports are good and we spent a few days demonstrating the bike around the community, with farmers and different community groups. While initially the dream was to be able to pump water uphill and provide a real low-cost alternative to everyone, in reality the pump works best bringing the water up a few metres from the source and distributing it along the flat up to 50 metres or further. It requires very little effort and is very easy to use, so it seems to offer great potential for many of the farmers who struggle during the dry season — because it is normally just too hard to move the amount of water they need.

We now have to extend this project, and for this we need to source broken centrifugal pumps that can be made accessible here — even if we have to bring them in one by one. We also want to attract volunteers to get involved here and come and help surrounding farmers to build and start using there own pumps. Because of the nature of the design, the bike is still useable for its original purpose, and the pump swings upright so it can be transported while cycling. It could even become a viable business for someone here to provide an irrigation service.

Malawi truly has the potential to become one of the most sustainable countries in the world — not in a token sense, but in reality. It is a beautiful country were most people still live off the land and the onset of mobile technologies just increases their potential to stay there. Hunger and health issues are still apparent and as such are a threat to this potential and a low-cost, viable way for people to increase their food production locally would be a massive help in a world where the environment and world economics are getting more unstable. EWB Sheffield have committed to a six year partnership with Butterfly Space, which means we can improve on this design and work on others, but what we are really searching is for motivated volunteers to get out and build these bikes in the villages around here and demonstrate what massive potential they have — both as a business for some people and to extend the food production for others.


  1. Let’s in fact have a moment of silence for arrogant headline posts like these that DESTROY the name of permaculture so much so that many of us are now incapable of using it and promoting it. Hell, in places we have to completely disassociate ourselves with the word by necessity to even be able to speak about ecolological design science due to all the bullshit, shaming, naming and blaming, that is being pushed under the name of permaculture.

  2. What a great technology! It straight away had me searching “maya pedal” – have a look at this fantastic website, with photos and manufacturing instructions for this and other bicycle powered machines:
    Re Georgi’s gripe: I have no problem with the headline image – a harmless joke “meme” that has got around social media – eg IMHO a photo of the machine may have made a better top image, but the article is no less interesting.

  3. Georgi, You smell like an Internet troll to me. It makes little to no sense to drive to a gym to use a treadmill or running machine. Hand or foot powered water pumps are a great idea. Explain yourself better, or keep quiet next time. Chris

  4. Good and interesting article, Josie. Don’t know what that Georgi is on about. The important thing is that people can and do things like this to help make life a bit easier for people in beautiful Malawi. Keep it up!

  5. Hey Josie

    You mention in your article that mobile communication technology is enabling people to stay on the land in Malawi. I’m curious about what exactly you might be referring to, because I’ve heard recently of basic mobile apps for “non-smart” phones that are assisting in the transfer of information in these sorts of situations. Just wondering what your examples might be so as to research and compare for interest sake.


    1. hi david, with mobile technology it means that lives are still possible and more productive for everyone in the village and as a result people do lot leave to the towns as much. communication on a basic level is possible for the first time between people who live far apart over difficult terrain resulting in all kinds of benefits and general improvement to peoples lives. more specifically ive heard of systems helping farmers bring their crops in at the right time and others but i am no expert on these. hope this helps. .

      1. Thanks Josie. Yes I’ve heard about that basic effect that mobile tech is having on people….I’m interested to see whether, and in which exact way, it is leveraged further via apps, etc.

        Cheers, all the best

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