aCar Team Prepares for Long-Awaited Preliminary Research Trip

8 January 2021

It’s no secret that 2020 has been disappointing for most around the world – Germany included. Long-planned projects have had to be postponed, friendly meetups socially distanced, and travel plans altogether cancelled. Similar challenges have come to affect those of us in academia. How many conferences, workshops, symposiums, and colloquiums have been lost to last year’s particularly taxing challenges? Too many to list here.

The effects of the last year’s pandemic have been felt by TUM’s aCar Mobility Project. This is largely due to the fact that ours is a project reliant on travel for data collection. No travel means no data. No data means no project. This will all change as of 2021, however. With formal invitations from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit’s (GIZ) offices in Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire, three of our team members are preparing to make their way to sub-Saharan Africa in order to collect the preliminary data needed to see the aCar Mobility Project come fruition in the next years.

Before getting too ahead of ourselves, let’s review some basic facts. What is the aCar Mobiltiy Project and what data is needed to set it into motion? The aCar Mobility Project is a four-year undertaking funded by the GIZ. It aims to enable smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa gain access to better mobility, energy, and business design solutions so as to improve their incomes and–by extension–overall quality of life. At the heart of this project is the aCar, an all-purpose electric vehicle designed by TUM Students (and currently produced by these same students, now founders of EVUM Motors GmbH) between 2014 to 2017. Now, in 2021, the goal is to determine how best to optimize the aCar’s use among rural farming communities responsible for defining much of sub-Saharan Africa’s social and economic contexts.

As you might imagine, determining how best to optimize this vehicle’s use has been made especially challenging by travel restrictions. How is our team supposed to grasp the terrain on which the aCar is meant to travel? What of the mobility solutions already available to these farmers? Are there particular circumstances that might spur farming communities to embrace (or even reject) the aCar? Studying sub-Saharan Africa in Germany is quite the contradiction. So as not to render 2020 completely futile, our team opted to devote much of the year to collecting data off-site. We’ve held Zoom interviews with a great deal of experts, read much of the literature to be found on mobility in sub-Saharan contexts, and created an open-source database for any published research able to provide a glimpse into the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa. Through these efforts we were indeed able to create a tableau of farming communities’ energy availability, mobility needs, business shortcomings. That being said, having a well-researched theoretical tableau does not a mobility project make – let alone permit it to survive scientific scrutiny. As such, readers will certainly understand why our team was so pleased to receive formal invitations from the GIZ offices in Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire–the countries most studied by the aCar Mobility Project since its start in January 2020.

So as to set the project’s vehicle optimization process into motion, the aCar team will travel to these countries between January and March of 2021 with two aims in mind. First, the social aim: meet the project’s invaluable Ethiopian and Ivorian stakeholders. Second, the scientific aim: collect preliminary data able to prove or disprove the tableau we’ve created from Germany. Let us consider the latter before describing the former.

In line with TUM’s push to promote interdisciplinary research through the foundation of the Center for the Technology in Society and the Bavarian School Public Policy, our project also seeks to embrace cross-cutting research methods. While quantitative efforts will largely be devoted to creating energy and mobility prototypes via the aCar, qualitative efforts will largely focus on defining farmers’ wants and how best to respond to these through conversational means. As such, preliminary farmer surveys and research protocols have been drafted in preparation of our team’s travels. It is our hope that, through the completion of these open-ended surveys and protocols, information previously collected through theoretical means may find support on-the-ground. This support would not only optimize the aCar, but also sharpen our research interests during the project’s remaining three years. An official farmer survey through which publishable data may be collected will surely follow in the months to come.

Just as our data will serve preliminary aims, so too will our meetings with stakeholders. In effect, our team’s travels are partly meant to permit kick-off workshops to occur. Through these, we will be able to outline our project’s goals with stakeholders as well as define mutual expectations. Of particular importance will be specifying project visions, responsibilities, and technical requirements. We are pleased to have been granted stakeholder support from Ethiopia’s Adama Science and Technology University and Côte d’Ivoire’s Institut National Polytechnique Félix Houphouët-Boigny. It goes without saying that meetings with supporting members of the GIZ have also been planned. These will occur during our team’s stay in Addis Ababa and Abidjan.

In addition to visiting urban centers, the aCar team will also travel to more secluded areas as a means to better grasp their defining characteristics as these relate to travel, energy availability, and agricultural product. In Ethiopia, we will achieve this objective by visiting the Oromia Region’s Arsi Zone, where much of the population is employed through agriculture. While there, our team plans on meeting the experts at the Kulumsa Agricultural Research Center in order to gain an understanding of some of the region’s core crops, namely:  wheat, malt, and pulses. A stop-over in Harar will also permit for meetings with members of the Menschen für Menschen foundation. The latter, which has for mission to help Ethiopians attain better living conditions through integrated sustainable development, will show us around their training facility: the Agro Technical and Technology College (or ATTC for short). It is through our partnership with the ATTC and Menschen für Menschen that we will first integrate an aCar in sub-Saharan Africa for training purposes. More aCars, which we expect to leave at the discretion of farming cooperatives, will follow. As such, we also aspire to meet with farming cooperatives throughout our upcoming travels in Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire. Said cooperatives will likely be those located in the former’s Arsi Zone and the latter’s Lacs District. In fact, much of the time spent in Côte d’Ivoire will be dedicated to visiting the Lacs District in order to gain insight into its farming communities and their practices.

Ramping-up our project’s on-site research holds a great deal of promise. It also encompasses a great deal of considerations. As frustrating as it might be for our eager researchers, part of the eight weeks travelling through Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire will have to be spent in quarantine. Indeed, our team is doing its utmost to ensure all are able to respect the health and safety regulations outlined by Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire’s governments. As much as we had hoped 2021 would put an end to Covid-19, the possibility of illness (among all German, Ethiopian, and Ivorian stakeholders) remains a concrete possibility–one we will do our best to avoid. Still, the promise of on-site research in 2021 makes us confident that the aCar Mobility Project will soon hit the ground running (or, perhaps more aptly, driving!).

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