I know it is not every day that a 13-year-old American boy invents a device to save people in rural Africa.  I often am asked how it happened.

Chase tests out the device. Photo Credit: Rescue Travois

My mom sat my family down at the kitchen table one day and started reading aloud from a news article about the terrible toll of the 2011 Somali famine.

During the famine, hundreds of children who were too weak to walk were left by the roadside to die when their parents could no longer carry them on the long trek to a refugee center.  Parents were forced to decide which children lived, and which were left behind.

When I heard this, I thought no one should have to make such a choice, so I set to work trying to find a solution.  The harder I looked, the more I realized that there was not one yet in use. This was due to the fact that rural Africa has a severe dearth of simple wheeled transportation.

What a few rural Africans do have is a bike or wheelbarrow, neither of which is meant to carry people.

I realized that if I wanted to help in situations like the famine, I would need to come up with a device that would be: (1) simple for the refugees to use; (2) inexpensive so it could be produced in bulk; (3) hands-free so parents could carry children in their arms as well as in the device; (4) collapsible so it could be air-dropped onto the most-used refugee roads; and (5) easily assembled using just visual instructions.

I based my invention on the “travois,” a device created by the Native American Plains Indians to carry their belongings as they moved to follow the buffalo herds.  The travois is basically two poles from a teepee crossed at a main vertex and dragged behind a horse.

I spent seven months prototyping a more modern version that is collapsible, has wheels, and is hands-free.

USAID Innovation Officer meets young innovator Chase Lewis. Photo Credit: USAID

During that time, I was contacted by Meg Wirth, CEO of Maternova (and co-author of the UN’s MDG report on child and maternal health), who told me that the Rescue Travois has more applications than just in refugee situations.  She said it could be used to transport those in need of medical attention, especially women in delivery distress, from small villages to larger ones with doctors (a task often carried out with a wheelbarrow or an old door as a makeshift stretcher).  The Rescue Travois could make the trip both faster and more comfortable.

A friend of mine is a refugee from Chad and knows from hard personal experiences how much the Rescue Travois is needed for medical as well refugee purposes.  He helped me share this reality in a video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sirA64d6OVo) as well as in our meeting last week with USAID CIO Dr. Maura O’Neill.

The travois also could be used in subsistence farming or in water carrying.  If the travois were made out of bamboo with simple lashings for the vertices, it would be inexpensive and easy for village carpenters to produce.  The travois would proliferate, potentially revolutionizing simple wheeled transportation in rural Africa.

A team of companies (including a wheel manufacturer), organizations, and individuals are coming together to make the Rescue Travois a reality.  Learn more at: http://rescuetravois.wordpress.com/.