A Queen’s Engineering partnership with a university in Burkina Faso promises to greatly impact the lives and health of those working in that country’s largest industry.

The practice of yarn weaving, spun from cotton, contributes to an essential part of the Burkina Faso economy, but the physical demands of the work can lead to pain and injuries for its practitioners. To address these issues, a new partnership evolved through the long-standing relationship between researchers in Benin and Burkina Faso and Mechanical and Materials Engineering professor Genevieve Dumas.

With assistance from the Queen’s International Research Fund, Dumas and professors Qingguo Li and Tim Bryant, also from the Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering, have begun a collaboration with Dr. Amidou Sawadogo at Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo centered on his novel ergonomic studies with Burkinabe weavers.

Plans for in-person visits between team members were cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the project transitioned to a remote collaboration, which then allowed for graduate students Charlie Drysdale and Sam Brost to join the project as well as a MECH 460/462 design team and MECH 461 students Jordan Howes and Olivia Chisholm.

The team is working with Dr. Amidou Sawadogo of the Institut des Sciences du Sport et du Développement Humain (Sports Science and Human Development Institute) at the Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, with support from The Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI). An examination of the critical issues of weaver health and working conditions resulted in an international collaboration: the ISSDH-FCIL Promotion Santé Des Tisseuses Par l’Exercise Physique.

“Socioculturally, Faso DanFani is the emblematic fabric of Burkina Faso,” says Sawadogo. The term Faso DanFani is translated as “woven loincloth of the homeland” from the Dioula language.

“Previously the work of men, it is today a symbol of women’s emancipation. It reflects the cultural identity of the people of Burkina Faso. Its weave quality and patterns make it possible to distinguish the ethnic groups, Samos, Dagara, Mossi and Gourounsi. Sixty-five percent of the income of households living in rural areas comes from the cotton sector. The production and purchase of woven cloth contributes to the preservation of ancestral know-how.”

“Our initial instinct was to look at ways to redesign the loom,” Li says. “As we explored this, we realized it was not our best option. It’s a traditional, well developed artisanal practice and it would be difficult to develop modifications that would allow the weavers to integrate new designs while maintaining the quality of their weaving.” Dr. Sawadogo’s expertise in human motion and past research in exercise programs as a preventative measure to reduce pain and injuries in weavers resulted in the shift in focus to develop an exercise program and equipment for the weaving community in Burkina Faso.

“We started working on a combination of an exercise program and equipment to reduce pain and injuries, ultimately to support the empowerment and health of women, who comprise most weavers,” Li says. “China has public spaces with outdoor exercise equipment, often for use by the elderly for morning and evening exercise. These exist in some places in Canada, but not at all in Burkina Faso.”

“Queen’s has expertise in mechanical design and also in bio-mechanics,” Bryant says. “We were able to adapt existing exercise equipment so that it would focus on the muscles that Amidou wanted in terms of the weavers’ activities. The project became developing outdoor exercise equipment that could be used by the weavers on their own time so they wouldn't need an instructor there to help them use that equipment.”

A local news report on the project, featuring Canadian Ambassador to Burkina Faso, Lee-Anne Hermann:

“It has been an unbelievable experience,” Drysdale says, “being able to see the work we have done in collaboration with the local researchers and artisans come to life. I have learned a great deal about alternative and very creative manufacturing methods that were still able to achieve the same result.”

“Being able to collaborate with local researchers, artisans, and fabricators provided invaluable learning experiences,” Brost says. “Their insights were critical in meeting the needs of the community we were designing for.”

Currently a set of working exercise equipment has been installed on the campus of the Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo and thirty women weavers are being trained on this site. Long-term benefits of the exercise program are being evaluated by Dr. Amidou Sawadogo. If it goes well, the pilot may extend to other areas in the country.

“We were really impressed with how well this partnership worked,” Bryant says. “Now we have an opportunity also to do some scientific work. Does this type of an exercise program benefit weavers in the way that we think it will? Is it sustainable? And in the future, what modifications might be necessary for the next iterations?”

The success of the project has led the Queen’s Engineering team to consider more international projects in the future. Dr. Sawadogo and the associate director of his institution will visit Queen’s later this summer — with the support of the Principal’s Development Fund for visiting scholars — in order to strengthen the current collaboration and develop new relationships between researchers at both institutions.