Uganda: How pedal power is helping Uganda’s mountain gorillas

by Dec 14, 2011Great Apes

In late 2009, the GBicycles are powering films that teach communities about the plight of the gorillas and their natural habitat.

reat Apes Film Initiative was struggling in its efforts to bring conservation education to communities located on the edge of the Mgahinga national park, Uganda. It was a victim of its own success, all too often turning people away from screenings due to overcrowding, with some children having to walk more than 20 miles back to their homes without seeing a single image of the mountain gorillas that live unseen alongside them.

What was needed, founder and director Madeleine Westwood saw, was an affordable, sustainable and eco-friendly way of bringing film to even the smallest of villages. The solution? The Pedal-Powered Cinema Project.

Like similar initiatives popping up in cities across the UK, the technology is relatively basic, with the back wheel of a stationary bike fed into a generator, which then powers the projector and sound system. But, even by pedal-powered cinema standards, the screenings taking place across this part of east Africa are simple affairs, with just two children’s mountain bikes hooked up to the system and a single guitar amp providing the sound. This means that the whole cinema can be set up and dismantled by a team of two in a matter of minutes. Moreover, it’s lightweight enough to carry up to most hilltop villages, yet sufficiently robust to withstand the bumps and potholes of a typical road in rural Uganda. Its carbon footprint and running costs are minimal.

But it’s not simply a matter of the bikes being cheaper or greener to run than a petrol generator. In fact, just as in London or New York, the success of the pedal-powered cinema is due in no small part to both its quirkiness and its ability to add an extra element of audience participation to a screening. In short: hook up a petrol-powered generator in a school in Kisoro district to screen a film on gorillas and most of the school’s pupils will show up. But do the same using pedal power instead and their teachers, parents and grandparents as well as local officials will not only come along as well, but they’ll even queue up for a turn on the bikes.

Since the project was launched less than 12 months ago, around 43,000 children, as well as several thousand adults, have been able to attend a screening. For many, this will have been the first time they have seen images of gorillas, despite the fact they live right alongside the national park set up to protect the great apes. According to Westwood, the screenings are not just popular, but they are effective too, not least in teaching people about the plight of the gorillas and their natural habitat, even if the mating scenes tend to be the most popular with both children and adults alike.

She adds:

“So many of the children and their teachers have never seen a film before and to add to this novelty we also have a bicycle that generated the power to show the film. Some teachers shake their heads and declare a miracle. However, when we explain the science behind the system, they learn how to teach the children about physics and it’s also an ideal situation for them to talk about conservation and sustainable development, both for their own community and for Uganda as a whole.”

This simple technology has the potential to transform conservation outreach, as well as public health, agricultural training and many other initiatives that use film as an educational tool, right across the developing world.

• David Hewitt is a freelance writer and communications manager at conesrvation charity, the Gorilla Organization