March 25, 2007

Being independent is a must and scooters are a tool to keep it that way – EV Rider’s Juan Carlos Rivera. The idea behind Afikim Electric Mobilizers, a developer of advanced electrical vehicles for the disabled, elderly and obese, began 15 years ago when a member of Kibbutz Afikim in Israel’s Jordan Valley installed a makeshift motor on a tricycle for his elderly mother who suffered mobility problems.

The electric tricycle caused a sensation on the kibbutz and soon all the other older members were clamoring for him to make similar vehicles for them to potter about to the communal meal hall or store.

“Word got around, they started a small business in the kibbutz, and then everything grew from there,” recounts Shahar Hillel, the marketing manager of Afikim, which today manufactures a range of scooters from its state-of-the-art heavy duty outdoor scooters, the Breeze, and Breeze IV, to the light indoor scooters, the Caddy, and Superlight, which can be easily taken apart and stored in the trunk of a car.

But don’t expect a range of scooters like those that kids might zoom around on. The futuristic Breeze is “the Mercedez Benz” of scooters, Juan Carlos Rivera, president of EV Rider, Afikim’s new North American distributor, told ISRAEL21c.

The easy-to drive Breeze, which runs on rechargeable electric batteries, incorporates numerous advanced capabilities including an orthopedic seat, low noise levels, shock absorbers, easy maneuverability, ergonomics, and an extended driving range. In 2003, one British sexagenarian, Keith Matthews, drove the scooter right round England: a 28-day, 1,312 mile journey that put him in the Guinness Book of Records.

The Breeze IV is an even more luxurious ride, suited for extensive outdoor and some indoor use. With its two-horsepower engine, it incorporates many features from the automotive and Italian scooter industries, has a top speed of 10 miles an hour, and can do 25 miles on a single charge. The Breeze IV, which costs $3,900, can navigate sidewalks, street shoulders and malls.

Afikim’s largest market is the elderly. The graying of the population, as well as growing affluence, has led to a greater demand for high-quality motorized devices. According to Rivera, previous mobility devices “were too institutional in appearance, making them unappealing to older potential users. The market has changed and they are no longer unappealing, instead, they have become trendy, colorful and peppy.”

Many of Afikim’s older customers do not drive and do not own a car. “Being independent is a must and scooters are a tool to keep it that way,” says Rivera.

The scooters also appeal to the physically disabled – in the US alone, there are between 20 and 30 million disabled people, of which about two million need a wheelchair or other mobility device, such as a scooter or power wheelchair. They often prefer Afikim’s smaller models of vehicles appropriate for indoor use. Other markets include corporate and organizational users needing to travel short distances between campuses, and people who live in extreme temperatures.

One of the company’s fastest growing markets, particularly in the US, is the severely obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, about 30 percent of American adults – more than 60 million people – are obese. The company has taken note, and developed a super-sized version of the Breeze in response. The new four-wheel version has an upgraded motor, and the two-person bench has been replaced with a single seat which can carry a single passenger weighing up to 500 pounds.

In an article in the Boston Globe in December, Hillel said that in the last year, the company sold nearly $2 million worth of scooters to “heavy customers,” amounting to about a fifth of the company’s revenue. In the last three quarters of 2006, he also noted that American sales of the heavy-duty scooter doubled, making it the fastest-growing sector of the company’s business.

Obesity, he told the Globe, “is part of American life. More and more obese people want to go out and feel independent.”

One of the increasingly appealing aspects of Afikim’s scooters is that they are electric. As gas prices rise, people are constantly looking for new forms of more efficient and cheaper transportation.

Afikim is committed to innovation, says Hillel. The company recently introduced a new winter version of its Breeze line, which was specially designed for colder climates by Afikim and two partners, Norway based Hepro, and TGA in the UK. The scooter, which is proving a huge hit in Scandinavia, can operate at a temperature of 31 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and is hermetically sealed to ensure that the passengers don’t get cold. It has an optional heating system, CD player and cell phone charger.

“We recognized a growing demand for our product in colder countries, but those in existence exposed clients to the elements and were incapable of operating during the harshest days of winter,” Afikim marketing director Sharon Leventer told YnetNews.

The company, which employs 45 people both inside and outside the kibbutz and is still jointly owned by every member of the collective, is now developing new innovations.

“We’re working on a new Breeze called the Gulf that will have much bigger wheels. It rides not just on roads, but also fields and golf courses, and other off-road and outdoor uses. We are also working on small vehicles that people can take apart easily, put it in their car, and then reassemble,” Hillel told ISRAEL21c.

The company is also designing fancier models which include luxury add-ons, such as CD players, extra shopping baskets, cup holders etc., that appeal to US customers.

According to Hillel, the workers at the Kibbutz Afikim Breeze factory don’t see their work as merely a job, but rather as a vocation. “Most of the people here feel that we have a mission when you see people who sit at home and cannot go anywhere and really depend on family or friend. After they have these vehicles and start living again and start going anywhere their lives really improve! We have so many letters from people saying ‘Thank you for helping us.’ This gives us a lot of power to continue.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director