LabVIEW Helps Researchers Assess the Health Impacts of Head-Loading on Women and Children in Sub-Saharan Africa


"LabVIEW peerlessly enables these advanced interactions with the physical world with unrivalled ease and efficiency."

- Dr David Keeling, Key Engineering Solutions Ltd

The Challenge:
Understanding the long-term impact on health and well-being of carrying goods on a person’s head, known as head-loading, which helps fill the ”transport gap” in remote areas and densely packed markets in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Solution:
Using NI LabVIEW system design software and the NI Vision Development Module to develop a mobile measurement device to quantify the dynamic activity of head-loading in a pilot study conducted in Ghana, Africa. Results from the study will be published in international journals to help drive global research efforts towards minimising and mitigating the deleterious impact of head-loading.

Dr David Keeling - Key Engineering Solutions Ltd
Dr Pete Culmer - University of Leeds
Dr Kate Hampshire - University of Durham
Dr Gina Porter - University of Durham

There are areas of Africa, such as remote, rural locations and densely packed market districts, which have a widespread absence of affordable, reliable motorised transport. In such settings, pedestrian head-loading plays a major role in the porterage of commercial and domestic goods, such as water, firewood and harvested crops. Head-loading is used to sustain households and generate domestic revenue. Observations have long suggested that more goods are moved by humans than carried in motor vehicles in these settings. Despite it being an exhausting and arduous task, head-loading is predominantly performed by women and children.

Of the estimated 750 million women and children in Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority will carry heavy loads (in excess of 40 kg for adult females) of agricultural inputs and farm produce in the absence of affordable transportation. In addition to their load, some of these women are pregnant or carrying a young child on their backs. Thus, head-loading represents a huge potential public health issue in Africa. Despite this, the long-term impacts on maternal health, quality of life, labour productivity and life expectancy have largely gone unrecognised and unstudied.


Figure 1. Predominantly performed by women and children in rural Africa, head-loading plays a ubiquitous role in the transport of goods

Consequently, an international, multidisciplinary group of engineers from industry and academia united to research head-loading. Their long-term goal is to minimise and mitigate the deleterious impact it has on small food producers in rural Africa. A key component of this research is to develop a device that measures the dynamic activity in situ to aid in the creation of accurate biomechanical models for assessing the long-term health impacts of head-loading.

iLOAD Concept

NI Alliance Partner Key Engineering Solutions Ltd, which specialises in developing bespoke measurement and control solutions, partnered with engineers and product design students from the University of Leeds to develop a wearable measurement device for a head-loading pilot study. The resulting device, the intelligent load orientation assessment device (iLOAD), uses accelerometers, gyroscopes and GPS positioning to provide measurement feedback. A Bluetooth connection delivers wireless short-range mobile streaming.

The pilot study combined video footage, quantitative load-carrying measurements from the iLOAD device, and qualitative survey techniques to provide more information on head-loading and its impact on the health and well-being of these women and children. Cape Coast in Ghana was chosen as the study location because of our relationship with the University of Cape Coast and the prevalence of head-loading in that area. Thirty participants, carrying a range of loads, participated in the trial.

iLOAD Implementation

With LabVIEW, we developed an intuitive graphical user interface (GUI), established wireless connectivity to the iLOAD using Bluetooth, and streamed measurement data from iLOAD. We also used LabVIEW to correlate relevant measurements with video footage and logged them to disc. LabVIEW peerlessly enables these advanced interactions with the physical world with unrivalled ease and efficiency. iLOAD data from all onboard sensors was reliably acquired and stored at a rate of 100 Hz using the powerful LabVIEW producer-consumer software architecture. Additionally, to maintain portability, video was acquired from a high-definition USB webcam at a rate of 33 Hz. 


Figure 2. We used LabVIEW to analyse the skeletal movement of a market porter carrying bottles of water and her baby.


The comprehensive function libraries that install with LabVIEW implement common engineering requirements, enabling us to develop the iLOAD acquisition and analysis software in less than a week whilst seamlessly interfacing to multiple third-party sensor and measurement technologies. In addition, we used the NI Vision Development Module to stream video feeds to our LabVIEW software from any DirectShow-compliant USB camera. Our LabVIEW application then processed and saved the acquired footage as an AVI file, with corresponding iLOAD measurement data embedded in each frame of the AVI. This advantageously ensured that the two information sources were directly synchronised and correlated. We also used LabVIEW to create a human kinematics analysis tool for implementing advanced offline analysis of the logged data. This custom analysis tool unbundles the AVI, so we can scroll through the test data frame by frame to assess how skeletal movement affects spinal loading.

Figure 3 Kinematic analysis tool developed in LabVIEW to playback synchronised video and iLOAD data

Outcomes and Impact of the Research

A major goal of the international group investigating the health implications of head-loading is to ensure appropriate health interventions and policy changes are made to minimise the risk associated with regular heavy head-load carrying. We hope this will be partially achieved through the publication of our initial research findings, which will add to current understanding and help drive global research efforts.

Post-trial analysis of the pilot study data has already helped us develop biomechanical models, which interact with the acquired data so we can better understand the chronic effects of head loading. Previous literature inferred that head-loaders reduce the burden on their neck and back ligaments by straightening the natural curvature of the cervical spine. This has postural and bone-density benefits but produces enormous pressure on the vertebrae. Over extended periods of time, this pressure can lead to disk degeneration and spinal canal narrowing. We can use the biomechanical models produced through this research to simulate this effect and, with the paralleled acquisition of more in-the-field data,  serve as the primary tool for understanding acute and chronic health implications. This, in turn, will allow us to establish valuable guidelines for safer practices.

If further research funding is secured, we will further develop the iLOAD to a state where it can be left in the field for prolonged periods by harnessing mobile technology and training local research assistants to set up and gather data. LabVIEW will continue to play a crucial role in the correlation and analysis of the invaluable research data.

Ultimately, our research does not aim to eradicate head-loading. Instead, we hope that the research will make this essential means of goods transportation a safer practice for the millions of women and children who do this every day.

Author Information:
Dr David Keeling
Key Engineering Solutions Ltd
Unit 47, 33 Great George Street
Leeds L31 3AJ
United Kingdom

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