Print Edition - 2018-01-06 | On Saturday
- Young Nepali entrepreneurs have built an electric wheelchair that could potentially revolutionise differently abled lives, but how would it fare on Kathmandu’s chaotic streets?
Despite having developed a cost-effective wheelchair, the founders are aware that Leopard is still not within the purchasing power of the people who are most likely to benefit from the product
Jan 6, 2018-In September, many bystanders had a curious look on their faces as Sunil Pariyar—one of the young co-founders of Infinity Lab—successfully test drove an electronic wheelchair from Shantinagar in Baneshwor to Patan Dhoka. Powered by a rechargeable battery, the wheelchair is the first of its kind that has been designed and produced using mostly locally available materials. Called the ‘Leopard’, the wheelchair allows its users to travel at a top speed of 10 kilometres per hour and can cover up to 25 kilometres, after being fully charged for three hours.
“While the idea of an electric wheelchair is not new, we have contextualised the design by putting the large wheels in the front,” said Santosh Neupane, one of the developers of Leopard, “We discovered, through trial and error, that having large wheels in the front allowsfor more thrust and they are best suited for the uneven road conditions in Nepal.”
The developers, at Infinity Lab, further claim that they can supply the electric wheelchair for Rs 300,000. And as imported wheelchairs often quickly run out of service because there are no proper maintenance services available in the country, a locally made electric wheelchair can be a huge boon for the estimated 200,000 differently abled people in Nepal.
Recalling the events that led to the fruition of the project, Neupane says, “We volunteered in rescue operations in Bhaktapur after the earthquakes in 2015, and it broke our hearts to see people incapacitated and rendered physically disabled by the quakes. It was then that we set our hearts to making this electric wheelchair.”
As soon as they began, however, the novice entrepreneurs realised that they had no lab, equipment, trained labourers or money to start their venture. But they found a few helping hands along the way to help them develop a prototype. Kathmandu University provided the team with a lab and Independent Living Centre, Kathmandu (CIL-Kathmandu), a non-profit that focuses on the promotion and protection of the rights of Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) provided the necessary financial backing for the project.
“We were desperately in need of electric wheelchairs for people with debilitating disabilities. The government has not done much to help with the import of electric wheelchairs and ordinary people cannot buy them due to heavy cost of import,” said Jamuna Subedi, secretary at CIL, “So, when Infinity Lab approached us, we were more than happy to collaborate with them.”
Then after more than two years of continuous labour, several technical failures and constant support from the non-profit, Infinity Lab finally developed a prototype last February. Leopard is controlled by a simple joystick, which allows for easy navigation. It is designed to house medicines, water bottles, and a urine pouch that is attached underneath the seat. The wheelchair also comes with a GPS system that the kin can use to keep track of the current location of the user.
Despite the huge leaps made by the innovators, the prototype still hasn’t been developed to its full potential yet. It, for instance, is still not equipped with side view mirrors that are used in motorcycles or scooters to ensure the safety of the rider; according to Neupane their team is working to fix the problem by adding reflectors, which will enhance the safety of the user. Also, the wheelchair is only as tall as an office chair. It raises the questions of if the wheelchair is a safe for use in Kathmandu’s chaotic traffic. But the major hurdle, according to the founders of Infinity Lab, lies elsewhere.
“We have seen influx of demand since the prototype was unveiled. But producing wheelchairs in a large scale requires a sophisticated and well-fitted factory,” Sunil Pariyar said, “This is where we are stuck. We do not have the capital needed to begin large scale production to even meet the domestic demand.”
And, despite having developed a cost-effective wheelchair, the founders are aware that Leopard is still not within the purchasing power of the people who are most likely to benefit from the product. “Truth be told, a common wheelchair user still cannot afford our product,” Neupane admitted, “So we are trying to explore options to make them further available at a more subsidised rate.”
At the inauguration of the prototype, Finance State Minister Uday Shamsher Rana promised to help Infinity Lab by discussing the possibility of waiving the custom fees for batteries and other materials necessary for the assembling of the wheelchair. A subsidy from the government would reduce the cost of production by an estimated Rs 50,000.
With the subsidy, Infinity Lab might be able to introduce Leopard to the streets, but whether they radically change the lives of differently-abled people is yet to be seen. The team at Infinity Lab is confident that it will find a way to bring the product to the market, and their product might make a difference. However, they recognise that it must also be coupled with a national-level dialogue on how buildings and streets in the country can be made more accessible for the differently abled.
“The wheelchair can help people who are severely debilitated and have to rely on others to help operate their manual wheelchairs,” says Himal Aryal, the captain of Nepal Wheelchair Basketball team, “But for most differently-abled people, turning the wheels of the manual wheelchair is the only exercise they receive. Also, in developed countries, wheelchairs are used in bicycle lanes, but since we do not have proper roads and regulated traffic, it can be quite dangerous to be in a wheelchair in the busy streets of Kathmandu. That being said, just that a locally-made electronic wheelchair exists is a huge plus for the differently-abled community. Hopefully it leads to more initiatives and projects that strive to help this long ignored community.”
Published: 06-01-2018 07:59