Published on 23/05/2022

 Aston University product design experts to help improve wheelchair design and manufacture in Africa
  • Aston University researchers are taking part in scheme which aims to improve Africa's entrepreneurial and technical skills
  • Project is a collaboration with the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein, South Africa 
  • They are working with two South African wheelchair manufacturers to improve their products and business operations.

Wheelchair design is being improved and African disabled entrepreneurs are getting support from Aston University product design experts.

Senior lecturer in product design, mechanical, biomedical & design engineering, Dr Timothy Whitehead, is leading a team which is applying its expertise to a project with the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein, South Africa
To launch the collaboration, they are working with two South African wheelchair manufacturers to get their products to their next level.

One of these is Able Manufacturers, which has created a three-in-one chair with adaptable wheels for off-roading in the many rural areas that have limited paved roads. 

A standard wheelchair can’t cope with mud, holes and overgrown vegetation but the removable third wheel helps users overcome rough terrain. As a result, disabled people can travel to areas that were previously in accessible, increasing opportunities for and access to potential employment.

A core part of the project will be to use Aston University's expertise in design for manufacture and industrial design to help Able Manufacturers improve its current chair. 

Company owner Schalk van de Merwe said: "It is fantastic to work with the team on this project. 

“These chairs are a lifeline for so many people living in rural communities – if we can iron out the issues, they will be even better.”

The second project is to support the development of a new more affordable rugby wheelchair to encourage more disabled athletes and children into the sport. Currently it is costly to import these chairs to Africa, resulting in an automatic barrier to a sport which can support physical and mental health and rehabilitation. 

Real Steel Wheelchairs was started by Jared McIntyre, a disabled wheelchair rugby player who is working with skills providers to train disabled people to make the chairs and offer them valuable employment. 

Dr Whitehead and design research assistant Rebecca Leatherland are based within Aston University’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. They visited the two wheelchair manufacturers to understand the issues they faced and barriers to business development. Interviews, group workshops and observations were conducted to gain knowledge and understanding of local issues.

Dr Whitehead said: “We are delighted to be able to share Aston University knowledge, experience and research with African entrepreneurs.

“This project will help improve life for African people who use wheelchairs and help boost employment opportunities for disabled people.

“We are supporting two upcoming wheelchair manufacturers to improve their designs, while also creating educational and workshop materials for future disabled entrepreneurs.

“During our trip we had the opportunity to meet these business owners in person and learn first-hand about the challenges they face which we aim to help them overcome.”

In addition to supporting the two enterprises the team will be providing advice on upskilling and offering business and technical opportunities to the wider disabled community in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. 

The project has been funded through the British Council’s Innovation for African University scheme, which aims to improve Africa's entrepreneurial skills.

Photo caption Left to right:

Jared Macintyre, Real Steel Wheelchairs; Dr Thywill Cephas Dzogbewu, research fellow Central University of Technology; Dr Timothy Whitehead, senior lecturer, Aston University; Rebecca Leatherland, research associate, Aston University; Schalk Nel, engineer Real Steel Wheelchairs

Notes to Editors

About The British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We build connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries through arts and culture, education and the English language. Last year we reached over 80 million people directly and 791 million people overall, including online, broadcasts and publications. Founded in 1934, we are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter.

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Saskia Hansen is the interim Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston University was named University of the Year 2020 by The Guardian and the University’s full time MBA programme has been ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking. The Aston MBA has been ranked 12th in the UK and 85th in the world.

For media inquiries in relation to this release, contact Nicola Jones, Press and Communications Manager, on (+44)7825 342091 or email

British Council media contacts: Jhilla Khodaie,  +44 (0)7340 738013 and Per Behzat,

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