UN accelerator labs spark solar-powered auto-rickshaws, other sustainable vehicles

UN accelerator labs spark solar-powered auto-rickshaws, other sustainable vehicles
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Local governments around the world looking to incorporate sustainable transportation options should tap into a network of accelerator labs that have produced solar-powered auto-rickshaws and bamboo micro-trucks, according to a top United Nations development official.

Paola Constantino, head of solutions mapping for the U.N. Development Program’s (UNDP) Accelerator Labs in Guatemala, told The Hill that one year into the new project, entrepreneurs in developing countries are collaborating with others both domestically and internationally.

“With limited resources, limited access to other means, they are in some way being resilient to their current problems,” Constantino said.

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“That's what we want to expose to the world, and we can learn from them — local governments, national governments, can learn from them,” she added.

Her remarks came on the one-year anniversary of the “for Tomorrow” project, a joint initiative between Hyundai Motor Company and the UNDP. Over the past year, the project has amassed a network of 72 grassroots-led solutions in 44 countries that are receiving support from local UNDP Accelerator Labs, where they are brainstorming and developing their unique sustainable initiatives in a collaborative environment.

In total, the UNDP has 91 such Accelerator Labs in 115 countries — which has grown from an initial 60 labs launched in collaboration with governments of Germany and Qatar two years ago.  

The program is not providing funding for entrepreneurs but is building a network that fosters a “cross pollination of knowledge,” Constantino said.

While the platform is “open to anyone who wants to join,” Constantino said the objective of each project is to work toward creating sustainable cities. Ideally, the solutions should focus on U.N. sustainable development goals that call for the creation of inclusive, safe and resilient communities, she said.

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Among the solutions shared in the past year are a “Solar Tuk Tuk,” also known as an auto-rickshaw, which converted a motorcycle taxi into a solar-powered vehicle in Guatemala City and Chiquimula, in the eastern part of the country. The red moto-taxi sports a flatbed of photovoltaic panels on its roof — an environmentally friendly alternative to a vehicle that otherwise generates about 4 tons of carbon dioxide emissions in Guatemala each year, according to the project. 

While auto-rickshaws are commonplace in Southeast Asia, Constantino said they have grown in popularity in other parts of the world, such as Central America.

“[In] the remote areas — we don't have super wide roads, or super massive trains or our super bus rapid transit systems,” she said. “So, how can people manage to go from each place to another, and especially when you think about the COVID-19?”

Despite being relatively inexpensive upfront — at about $10,000 — auto-rickshaws require maintenance every few months. That prompted Guatemalan entrepreneur Alfredo Maul to find a way of swapping the conventional engine with a solar powered electric motor, Constantino said.

Maul and his team of about 30 collaborators, including the Guatemalan environmental organization G-22, are aiming to develop an electric vehicle conversion kit that could be sold at an affordable price by means of a “green loan” offered by a cooperative financial institution.

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“This solar tuk-tuk is actually a prototype — it's been tested, it's been run here in Guatemala City and Chiquimula as well, to test the power capacity,” Constantino said. “It has worked.”

Guatemalan innovators were also able to compare notes with entrepreneurs based in Sierra Leone who had built the country’s first locally manufactured solar-powered vehicle — called “Imagination Solar Car.”

Weaved together with locally sourced bamboo and equipped with a photovoltaic canopy, the micro-truck sports Sierra Leonian flag colors and can travel about 9 miles per hour on a paved road, according to the project. The vehicle is the brainchild of a self-taught 24-year-old inventor, Emmanuel Mansaray, who said he is aiming to do his part in reducing his community’s exposure to the hazardous fumes emitted by traditional cars.

Some other examples of solutions proposed over the past year include “Solar e-Cycles,” cargo tricycles in Kenya that serve those with mobility needs; “African Water Cities,” which focuses on designing floating buildings; and “Low Cost Recycled Plastic Shelter Solutions” in India. 

Through her role at the UNDP, Constantino said she strives to help people determine what works, and what doesn’t, as they innovate sustainable development tools. Constantino said that she and her colleagues employ ethnographic strategies and methodologies to observe both the unique challenges of their regions and the ways communities are overcoming them.

“We are actually these small hubs of knowledge that are learning from local people and trying to get to know what works, what doesn't, towards sustainable development,” Constantino said. “So that's kind of our signature.”

As the tuk-tuk project in Guatemala City moves forward with its successful prototype, Constantino said that Maul and his colleagues are looking to build at least three more vehicles soon. The team is now knocking on doors to acquire potential donations that could take their grassroots solution to the next level, Constantino said.

“It's not our intention to make them massive solutions, but instead to improve the solutions — to replicate within the country and hopefully in other countries, or to have this knowledge exchange,” she said.