Size of Africa

true-size-africaI was surprised when I came upon this map of Africa. The true size of Africa suddenly comes into view. An article on the Collective Evolution 1 website speaks about the European bias in creating maps that has diminished many people’s understanding of the size of Africa.

The article makes a very convincing argument but the take-home for me is the challenge Africa’s size poses for moving people and goods over long distances. Levopters offer the promise to make traversing Africa much safer, faster, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable.



Cultural Cringe

At a meeting of Idea to IPO, I witnessed a curious exchange. A man from Europe, practicing a presentation for potential investors, downplayed the accomplishments of his company. In the context of what goes on in “The States” he felt his company’s financial transactions with three large international companies were barely worth mentioning. This internalized view is often termed Cultural Cringe.

Steve, the coach at the event, forcefully emphasized the need for companies and individuals to not only recognize but to metaphorically SHOUT about such accomplishments.

I imagine we all occasionally suffer from a reluctance to recognize and build upon our own accomplishments. We harbor doubts about our abilities when compared to those of people and companies we admire. Awareness, however, is half the battle won and I am confident that the presenter from Europe will be considerably more strident in presenting his company in the future as I hope to be when overcoming my own cultural cringe.



Why Murphy’s Law Matters

Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” is often taken as a defeatist’s lament to the fates that as hard as a person tries, bad things will happen. There are other phrasings of Murphy’s Law but they all lean toward having to accept  things that are out of our control.

Understood in its entirety, Murphy’s Law is much more powerful than a simple shrugging of the shoulders and chalking up to bad luck a particular mischance or catastrophe.

I’ll go into the origins of Murphy’s law later but based on a fuller examination of those origins I posit that Murphy’s Law is more appropriately stated as “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, so do something to prevent things from going wrong.” In short, make things or processes Murphy Proof.

One of my favorite Murphy Proof items, one we see multiple times per day and never give a second thought to, is the ubiquitous manhole cover. Manhole covers are round to make them Murphy Proof. A square manhole cover needs to be carefully handled so that it doesn’t slip and fall through the manhole causing a catastrophe. A square manhole cover can be diagonally dropped through the manhole whereupon the dropper would likely cry out “Murphy got me again” and blame the accident on bad luck.

A round manhole cover, on the other hand, can’t be dropped through the hole it covers. A round manhole cover is Murphy Proof. We all need to think in terms of Murphy Proofing things. A little bit of planning can often avoid a lot of frustration later.

IMG_2232 not murphy proof

Here is an example of a system that is NOT Murphy Proof. The message was located on the inside of a restroom door in a restaurant. It reads:

Please PUSH in lock to lock the door. DO NOT twist the lock or the door will remain locked from the inside. Thank You. Togo’s Crew.

We can infer from this note’s emphasis on PUSH – DO NOT twist, that the crew does not like to deal with the consequences of people not obeying the admonishment of the note. Perhaps the restroom occupant gets locked into the restroom and pounds on the door until at least one person in the crew stops what they are doing, looks for a key, asks other crew members if they have seen the key and then unlocks the door only to have the next restroom user potentially twist the lock on leaving. The restroom user could (1) ignore the note, (2) not understand the note, (3) want to see what happens when they twist instead of push or (4) the note might have fallen to the floor. This system comprising a lock and a note is not Murphy Proof.

A simple Murphy Proof solution to this problem would be to invest in a door lever that ONLY has a PUSH button. Understandably, the management of the crew, will weigh the cost of buying and installing a new door lever against continuing with the current lock that has a cost of its own in terms of upsetting customers and taking time away from busy crew members.

Some of my favorite Murphy Proof-isms are:

  1. Don’t take your car keys out of your pocket standing over a drainage grate.
  2. Don’t pass your coffee cup over a computer keyboard.
  3. Find out how far your gate is before you spend time at an airport bookstore.
  4. Don’t back up a car any more than you need to.
  5. Make a second copy of your presentation on a flash drive.

You can probably imagine some of the events that led to the generation of that little list.

Now to the origins of Murphy’s Law and why so many people fail to understand its real value. It is generally accepted that Edward A. Murphy was responsible for designing and installing sensors to measure the physical stresses on Air Force Captain John Stapp as he was rapidly decelerated in a rocket sled. It seems Murphy’s assistant wired the sensors backwards and they didn’t work leading Murphy to opine that if there were two ways to do something and one way would cause a catastrophe, then his assistant would eventually do it the wrong way – hence “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. A defeatist’s or perhaps a scapegoater’s view of a problem.

Captain Stapp, on the other hand took the newly minted Murphy’s Law and extended it to explain that they used Murphy’s Law to make things safer. They anticipated what could go wrong and then took steps to prevent mishaps. In the case of the stress sensors, perhaps Captain Stapp insisted that they install connectors on the wires of the sensors that could only be connected in one way. He may have also added the Murphy Proofing step of testing the sensors for functionality before firing off the rocket sled.

Murphy Proofing does require some additional analysis to anticipate potential problems and it often involves additional cost as in the need to replace a twist lock on a bathroom door with a push button but the added analysis and expense often reap tremendous benefits in the form of problem or catastrophe avoidance.

Fair Trade versus Buy Local

Often the “Fair Trade” movement and the “Buy Local” movement are seen as being at odds with each other.

  • Fair Trade emphasizes procuring food from far away places.
  • Buy Local emphasizes procuring food from local places.

Fair Trade goods incur greater packaging and transportation costs and they result in greater emissions of green house gases while Buy Local minimizes packaging and transportation because goods do not have to travel as far.

So is it possible for a conscientious shopper to buy Fair Trade products while also being a supporter of Buy Local policies? I believe the answer is yes for a few different reasons.

First of all, Fair Trade and Buy Local see some degree of accord in that both movements are concerned with ensuring better working conditions for the people who actually produce the goods.

Secondarily, there is a lack of conflict when one looks at the particular crops and products that Fair Trade is concerned with. Most Fair Trade and Buy Local consumers are in the Northern Hemisphere whereas most of the money actually spent on Fair Trade goods buys products that aren’t available in the Northern Hemisphere. From, the top 6 revenue generating Fair Trade products are:

  1. Coffee
  2. Bananas
  3. Cocoa
  4. Flowers and Plants
  5. Seed Cotton
  6. Tea

For the majority of people living in developed countries, of the items in this list, only Flowers and Plants are available to them locally so if they are going to buy things such as coffee, bananas and cocoa (chocolate), there really aren’t many local options.

On a third note, from our perspective here at Wind Powered Aircraft, we predict that our levopters will eliminate the large carbon foot print Fair Trade items suffer from. Levopters will transport Fair Trade goods from any point on our Earth without emitting any green house gases thereby removing the transportation penalty from Fair Trade items.

Finally, the most harmonizing aspect of the Fair Trade and Buy Local movements may be the fact that in both cases consumers are making conscious examinations of what they are buying. People of both persuasions care about how the goods they are buying were produced and how their purchase decisions will affect other people. Our World needs more of those sorts of people whether they adhere to Fair Trade or Buy Local ideals or both.


Keeping African Kids in School

I recommend that anyone reading this blog will enjoy checking out a new non-profit organization, founded by Fatou Doumbia. Fatou embodies what is so desperately needed in much of the world – an empowered woman. The world has billions of hard working women but far too few of those women have the education, resources and opportunities they need to make a real difference to their families and to their communities. Fatou’s organization is one possible conduit for giving more children the opportunity to, in the words of Fatou’s website, “become productive world citizens”. Fatou wants kids to aspire to much more than becoming self-sufficient and go a step beyond.

On a bitterly cold January day in Boulder, Colorado, I met with Fatou to learn more about crops and farming practices in the African country of Mali. She is very familiar with the Shea butter industry in Mali that entails an almost exclusively woman-centered production cycle. In fact, in Sub-Saharan Africa 70% of all farmers are women and because we see levopters as being very useful for small farmers, it is important for us at Wind Powered Aircraft to understand the needs of women like those who produce Shea butter and other crops for export.

Please visit Fatou’s new website,, and if so inclined, click on the “Donate” button.

Ecotourism and Aviation

I like this twitter posting from Marc Mac Lean.

Mark makes a great point. A person flying in a commercial airliner for 12 hours will cause the release of 1 to 2 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) whereas washing towels only once a week instead of daily saves only about 5 pounds of CO2.

Levopters can help to bring these two statistics closer together by greatly reducing or entirely eliminating the carbon emissions from flying. A commercial airliner will travel about 6,000 miles in 12 hours and the same trip in a levopter would take about about 96 hours (4 days). That is three and a half days longer than the trip by aircraft and many people may not want to take the time to travel by levopter but there could be some advantages to the levopter flight that the jet airplane can’t offer.

Levopters could make a vacation as much about getting to a destination as it is about being at a destination.

Spacious accommodation

A jet aircraft has to fly at very high altitudes in order to achieve efficient operation and the need to fly high means a jet’s fuselage needs to be pressurized to keep people from dying of oxygen deprivation. To make the fuselage strong enough to withstand pressurization, the fuselage of a jet aircraft is built as a long, slender aluminum tube with seats packed as tightly as possible. A levopter, on the other hand, flies at low altitudes and doesn’t need a pressurized fuselage. That means it doesn’t need to be a long slender tube but can be more expansive to provide comfort for passengers equivalent to what they would experience on a train or a cruise ship. Instead of eating and sleeping in their seats, passengers can eat in a dining room and sleep in beds.

Direct route

Usually, a trip to a remote ecotourism site will require multiple flight legs and possibly even several hours spent in a tour bus to finally reach the desired destination. A levopter does not require a formal airport with paved runways and with fewer passengers than a commercial airliner, a single levopter could make a trip specifically for a particular destination. You could board the levopter in your home country and travel in comfort all the way to the final destination never having to transit airports or travel the final miles to your destination by road.

Better scenery

Jet aircraft have small windows to withstand the pressurization whereas a levopter can have large windows to enjoy the scenery along the way. Coupled with that, the levopter will be flying at low altitudes so the windows will provide spectacular panoramas close enough to the ground to actually see what is below.

Entertainment and socializing

Inflight entertainment on an airliner consists of movies on overhead TVs or if you are lucky, you’ll have a seat with a small video monitor mounted in the seat in front of you. On a levopter, these facilities can be extended to cover the range of activities normally found on cruise ships and because of the spaciousness of a levopter, people will be able to socialize, interact with and learn from each other as they travel.

No greenhouse gases

Finally, the most significant difference between traveling by jet airplane or levopter will be the fact that a levopter will not release any CO2 or other green house gases into our atmosphere.

Locavores and People Living In Poverty

There is a worldwide movement referred to as the “locavore” or “local food” movement. Locavore people strive to buy food that is produced close to where they live. One of the benefits of purchasing locally grown food is that the food travels less far so less fuel is used to transport the food and that means fewer green house gases are emitted to transport the food – so buying locally produced food is a good thing. Right?

Maybe not from everyone’s perspective. At least not when viewed through the eyes of some of the world’s poorest people. At odds with a movement to shun food produced in far away lands is a situation typified by Bolivia. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America 1. Consider that the average income in Bolivia is about $900/person per year and that 40% of the labor force is engaged in agriculture 2 and it becomes obvious that Bolivian farmers are probably not in favor of people avoiding the consumption of their crops.


Photo courtesy of Alter Eco Foods

So what is more important? Should we limit green house gas emissions by purchasing locally grown food or should we buy crops from poor people in places like Bolivia to allow them to work themselves out of poverty?

Levopters offer a solution to this dilemma. Levopters are wind powered aircraft that fly without using any fuel. Using levopters, agricultural producers in remote countries like Bolivia will be able to transport their crops to overseas markets without emitting any green house gases. A farmer living in Bolivia will be able to transport crops to Chicago or any other place in North America without incurring the cost of fuel and since levopters use no fuel they also produce no green house gas.Bolivia to Chicago great circle route 13031401

The levopter will fly in virtually a straight line at a speed of 50 to 80 miles per hour to make the 4,000 mile trip in about 3 days or less.

A 3 day transit time is far shorter than if the corn crop

  • went by truck or train to a seaport
  • where it was transferred to a ship
  • the ship then traveled in a non-straight line at a speed of less than 20 miles per hour to a destination seaport
  • where it would again be transferred to a truck or train to
  • finally travel to Chicago.

A Bolivian farmer will realize benefits of cutting out costly middlemen and high transportation costs to sell crops at markets that are far more lucrative. Locavores will have access to fresh food with a low carbon footprint. Both sides win.

There are millions of farmers and small producers around the world in similar situations to the farmers of Bolivia and levopters offer the promise of helping these struggling people to improve their way of life.



Levopters for Farmers and Small Producers

Vehicle_Africa_01_02This is a concept design for a small levopter that could potentially be used by farmers and small manufacturers. It is configured to carry 1,800 to 2,000 pounds of cargo plus one or two passengers. The range of such a craft is really limited more by the requirements of the passengers than the craft itself because as with all levopters, there is no need for fuel. The flight time from Uganda to France, for example, would be about 3 days. Shorter flights would also be advantageous such as Uganda to Mombasa taking only about 10 hours. Typically, truck journeys from Uganda to Mombasa take almost a week.

Vehicle_Africa_02Whether the levopter flies near or far, it opens up the opportunity for small producers to seek out and deliver their goods to places where they can get a fair price for the hard work they put into whatever they produce.

We anticipate this vehicle can be built at a cost of less than $7,000. That compares very well with the purchase price of a new pickup truck that has a similar payload capability. Nevertheless, the cost won’t be trivial for many of Africa’s impoverished people so possibly this smaller levopter might be shared amongst villages or other groups of people. Vehicle_Africa_03Because levopters are simpler to build than conventional pickup trucks, it is very likely that levopters will be locally produced in Africa as opposed to imported from producers in far off lands thereby keeping more hard earned cash in Africa.

These small levopters will not only facilitate the transport of produced goods but they will also open up the possibility for producers to bring back needed goods to their farms, factories and villages. Farmers could bring back fertilizer and farming tools, while a factory owner might bring back new machines to improve his factory.

Hopefully, levopters will contribute to helping start a new cycle of incremental improvements in the lives of African people.

Levopter Development in Africa

We have started the process of moving some of our development efforts to Africa. This has been under consideration for months and the initial phase of the move is to identify localities and partners for development work. Some of the issues that argue in favor of locating development efforts to Sub-Saharan Africa are:

  1. Sub-Saharan Africa needs transportation improvements.
  2. Get end user input as early as possible.
  3. African resources are sufficient for development.
  4. African geography suits levopter testing.

Sub-Saharan Africa needs transportation improvements. My previous blog entry pointed out that while the people of Sub-Saharan Africa are the poorest in the world, they have to pay twice as much for road transport as do people in the United States and Europe. This stifles the ability of farmers and other producers in Sub-Saharan Africa to get the best price for their goods. In his book From Poverty to Power, OXFAM’s Duncan Green points out that “Farmers must take prices offered by visiting buyers because they have no transportation of their own. If they rent a truck, the police demand bribes at every roadblock on the way into town.” Levopters will allow farmers not only to circumvent road blocks but also to reach markets that may pay much higher prices for their produce than the market in the closest town.

Get end user input as early as possible. Although listed second, this is the primary driver for carrying out development in Africa. Too many well-intentioned efforts to produce a product go astray because the development of the product is driven by engineers and designers without enough understanding of end users and how such end users will actually use the new product or without appreciating the cultural idiosyncrasies of the people in an intended market.

As an example, the company General Mills researched the Japanese baked goods market and found that Japanese people frequently bought cakes at retail outlets but didn’t cook cakes at home because their kitchens typically didn’t have an oven. Accordingly, General Mills developed a cake mix that could be prepared in a rice cooker, a ubiquitous Japanese appliance, and sent container loads of their cake mix to Japan only to have their new product fail in the Japanese market. Follow up research revealed that Japanese housewives were reluctant to use their rice cooker for anything apart from cooking rice for fear of tainting the flavor of their rice.

In a similar vein, I once attended a presentation given by an American agronomist who had toured developing countries to instruct people in methods to increase yields from their agricultural plots. He had met with a group of farmers and one of the subjects he spoke about pertained to techniques to prevent mice from gaining access to stored grain. He asked if there were any questions and one of the farmers inquired, “If we do these things to keep the mice from getting to the grain, what will the mice eat?”.

These simple examples illustrate the need to involve end users as early as possible in a product’s design process and if the poverty constrained people of Sub-Saharan Africa are to be early users of levopters then it is imperative to get their input, ideas and cultural preferences incorporated into the initial designs of levopters. We feel this can be accomplished through partnering with one or more universities in Sub-Saharan Africa, to work with the professors and students who are indigenous to the areas where levopters will be used. In this regard, we have started to establish criteria to gauge universities by. Some of the best universities in Sub-Saharan Africa are in the country of South Africa but from an African perspective, South Africa is not one of the more transportationally challenged countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. So one criterion is to look for universities in countries where levopters can most greatly benefit the people of those countries. South Africa has a good network of highways and well developed sea ports whereas 17 of Africa’s 54 countries have no direct access to the oceans at all. For example, trucks traveling from land-locked Uganda typically wait 5 to 10 days simply to cross the border into Kenya in order to access the sea port in Mombasa.

Another consideration for selection of universities to work with will be their ethnic and gender equality policies. Ethnic divisions often permeate African societies, politics and university enrollment bias. Similarly, although it is estimated that women own one third of all informal businesses in Africa1 and they comprise roughly 70% of agricultural workers2 they account for only about 38% of university enrollment3. If levopters are to be successfully used in Africa it is imperative that we understand the needs of marginalized people so that levopters are developed with those people’s needs in mind. Consequently, it is important that those marginalized people, be they women or disadvantaged ethnic groups, are represented in the make up of a university’s student body.

African resources are sufficient for development. Critical components of levopters are the flexible wings they use and the super-strong tethers that attach the sails to the fuselage. These items may be high-tech in their own right but their use and control is relatively well understood and should be a manageable task within African universities. Another development effort will be to create a detailed database of the directions and speeds of winds at increasing altitudes above the African continent and stemming from the creation of that database will be the requirement to provide software for extracting that information and modeling the operation of levopters in the winds above Africa. Should the resources of a university we work with prove lacking in resources for activities such as wind tunnel testing or CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) analysis it is likely that the university in question has a partner relationship with a university in the developed world that could fill such a gap.

African geography suits levopter testing. Lastly, it is important to locate certain aspects of development within reasonable proximity of suitable flight testing areas. Heretofore, testing has been carried out in the sparsely inhabited open spaces of the American prairie bounded by the Pawnee National Grassland. A quick review of the African landscape has highlighted many areas that have a topography similar to that of the American prairie.

Moving development efforts to Africa will undoubtedly pose challenges but the anticipated rewards for the people of Africa far outweigh the potential hurdles that may present themselves.