Wheels of change

Africa’s rugged rural roads are no barrier to a bike helping students and smallholders ride into a brighter future

In Zambia’s district of Chongwe, Georgina Stimbeko makes her living as a dairy farmer. Alongside some 80 other smallholders, she supplies milk to the local Palabana Dairy Cooperative (PDC); each day making the 12km trip from her farm along dirt roads. Previously, with no reliable means of transport, the journey was long and the volumes of milk that could be carried were limited.

Today, that has changed. Using the sturdy Buffalo bike, which can heft 100kg-plus loads, Stimbeko has seen her travel time slashed, and her income rise.

“Since I got the Buffalo, I never failed to deliver milk, not even [one] day,” she says.

These retro-looking bicycles are produced by a subsidiary of World Bicycle Relief (WBR), a cycling-focused NGO. Under the tagline ‘built for big loads on tough roads’, the bikes aim to give low-income groups in Africa the means to travel to markets, schools, healthcare facilities and more.

"We saw a lot of demand from farmers, other individuals and NGOs, all wanting to buy our bicycles”Their durable design is deliberate. Regular city bikes have a brutally short lifespan on Africa’s dirt tracks, says Dave Niewsander, president of WBR.

“When we first came to Zambia, we found that the locally-available bicycles really weren’t serving the end user,” he says. “We called them bicycle-shaped objects. We work with a manufacturer in Asia to design components that are specifically built for African roads.”

The bikes are assembled in six factories across Africa by a team of just over 100 local employees using imported flatpacked parts. The bikes – which have a $160 price tag – reach riders in two ways: WBR raises funds to get bikes to students and volunteer health care workers who sign two year study-to-own and work-to-own contracts for their new wheels; WBR also sells bikes through its social enterprise to individual entrepreneurs and NGOs. Any profits are reinvested to fund WBR’s work.

The NGO paired up with PDC to bring bikes to smallholder farmers in Zambia, beginning in 2009. “It was really based upon demand from the field,” says Nieswander. “We started delivering bicycles into a USAID-funded healthcare programme, which focused on HIV and AIDS. As we did, we saw a lot of demand from farmers, other individuals and NGOs, all wanting to buy our bicycles.”

The impact of two wheels has been significant. Over four years, 281 bikes have been bought by PDC farmers, who in turn report that the number of milk deliveries they make are up by as much as 25 per cent. Milk volumes are up 23 per cent.

“Even though the price of the Buffalo is twice that of a bicycle you’d be able to get at a shop, demand is very strong,” says Nieswander. “We’ve had a situation where a large NGO purchased other bicycles because of budget constraints, and the volunteers basically rejected them. They said: ‘These are not Buffalos, we don’t want them.’”

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