How a Bike-Powered Corn Mill Can Boost Guatemalan Campesinos
The morning hours at Maya Pedal were filled with the sounds of grinding metal for the bicicuchilladora, a bicycle-powered cutting machine. The simple appliance, powered by a bicycle drivetrain, has at its heart a concrete cylinder, with columns of two-inch-long blades spinning within a plastic tube. Once used to move people, its bicycle parts now mince plastic in preparation for recycling or turning compost.
Maya Pedal co-founder Carlos Marroquin mastered the feat of connecting bicycle drivetrains to new mechanisms long ago. His organization, established in 1997, has created at least 16 different kinds of pedal-powered machines, or bicimaquinas, using recycled bikes and parts, perennially improving their designs to be more useful and affordable for farmers.
The bicimaquinas make a tangible difference for campesino villagers. The bike frames, handlebars, and drivetrains conserve time, money, and labor for farmers across the region. The bicimolino corn mill and bicilavadora washing machine save energy—both physical and fossil—for women who once completed these tasks by hand every day. Hand-powered alternatives demand time and effort, and the cost of fuel puts gas-powered ones out of reach for most.
The bicibomba water pump has the same benefits. Still, it can run as high as USD 300—nearly a month’s income for the average rural Guatemalan—and can thus require collective ownership, financing mechanisms, or otherwise a convincing return on investment. This price results largely from the labor invested by workers at Maya Pedal. The machines themselves are made from the refuse of bicycles: chains, gears, cranks, and handlebars, combined with common scrap metal and plastic.
The underlying genius of the bicimaquinas lies not just in their function or the customization of their parts but also in Maya Pedal’s vision for using the raw bike parts as a medium for connecting people locally and globally. Maya Pedal espouses the idea of building social capital—the value emerging from the relationships between people. While the bicimaqunias serve villagers in achieving their specific purpose—grinding corn, pumping water, or washing clothes—it's the collaborative innovation among engineers in San Andres Itzapa and their North American partners which has bred a sustainable solution with promise for rural communities worldwide.
Maya Pedal was founded in the wake of the Guatemalan Civil War, when volunteers from PEDAL, a Vancouver-based organization dedicated to bicycle-powered development, partnered with Guatemalan leaders to hatch the idea of a shop dedicated to bicimaqunias. Fueled through the years by the donation of thousands of bicycles from the Massachusetts-based Bike Not Bombs, Maya Pedal has been able to fashion the simple machines called for by everyday Guatemalan life. Without this bridge, the fabrication would not be possible.
Maya Pedal’s form of partnership combines a sustainable local business model with experts abroad who donate their skills in bicycle maintenance, small business development, and marketing. All staff and volunteers are encouraged to provide feedback about the design of the machines, the layout of the shop, or the effectiveness of the business model. This feedback loop strengthens future design: engaged helpers can stay as long as they want, offering continual input as they hone their engineering and building skills.
Meanwhile, Victor’s newly minted cutting machine whirs away—minced plastic radiating out from the central cylinder, each bit representing an opportunity for income. Positioned at the center of its own ecosystem, Maya Pedal keeps spinning its wheels, charting the paths among people, places, and machines toward the development of Guatemala.
A version of this article originally appeared in Makeshift, a quarterly magazine about creativity and invention in informal economies around the world. This is the first time it has appeared online.
Images courtesy of Anthony Siracusa