Friday, September 17, 2010

6 A Boy and a Bicycle

This was published recently in the NYT Op-Ed section written by none other than Nicholas Kristof. He's a 2 time Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist, whose columns I like to read from time to time because of his tremendously insightful accounts of poverty, social and human rights issues in some of the poorest places in Africa.

This latest column is about the efforts of World Bicycle Relief in fulfilling the needs for a practical mode of transportation for poor kids in Zimbabwe, many of whom have to walk several miles to get to school. Some of the background operations of the organization has been broken down for us and some light is shed on the nature of challenges they face in successfully running a bicycle equip program in these poor villages. Come discuss the article after you have read it. Have you been involved in any such programs here or abroad?

"Early this year I wrote a column from Zimbabwe that focused on five orphans who moved in together and survive alone in a hut.

The eldest, Abel, a scrawny and malnourished 17-year-old, would rise at 4 o’clock each morning and set off barefoot on a three-hour hike to high school. At nightfall, Abel would return to function as surrogate father: cajoling the younger orphans to finish their homework by firelight, comforting them when sick and spanking them when naughty.

When I asked Abel what he dreamed of, he said “a bicycle” — so that he could cut the six hours he spent walking to and from school and, thus, take better care of the younger orphans. Last week, Abel got his wish. A Chicago-based aid organization, World Bicycle Relief, distributed 200 bicycles to students in Abel’s area who need them to get to school. One went to Abel.

The initiative is a pilot. If it succeeds and finds financing, tens of thousands of other children in Zimbabwe could also get bicycles to help them attend school.

“I’m happy,” Abel told me shyly — his voice beaming through the phone line — when I spoke to him after he got his hands on his bicycle.

Before, he said, he wasn’t sure that he would pass high school graduation exams because he had no time to study. Now he is confident that he will pass.

The bicycle project is the brainchild of a Chicago businessman, Frederick K.W. Day, who read about Abel and decided to make him and his classmates a test of a large-scale bicycles-for-education program in Zimbabwe.

Mr. Day is a senior executive of the SRAM Corporation, the largest bicycle parts company in the United States. He formed World Bicycle Relief in 2005 in the belief that bicycles could help provide cheap transportation for students and health workers in poor countries.

At first, his plan was to ship used bicycles from the United States, but after visits to the field he decided that they would break down. “When we got out there, it was clear that no bike made in the U.S. would survive in that environment,” he said.

After consulting with local people and looking at the spare parts available in remote areas, Mr. Day’s engineering staff designed a 55-pound one-speed bicycle that needed little pampering. One notorious problem with aid groups is that they introduce new technologies that can’t always be sustained; the developing world is full of expensive wells that don’t work because the pumps have broken and there is no one to repair them.

So World Bicycle Relief trains one mechanic — equipped with basic spare parts and tools — for every 50 bicycles distributed, thus nurturing small businesses as well. Abel was one of those trained as a mechanic this time.

In the world of aid, nothing goes quite as planned, and it’s far too early to know whether this program will succeed. World Bicycle Relief tried to get around potential problems by spending months recruiting village elders to oversee the program (it helps that the elders receive bicycles, which they get to keep after two years if they provide solid oversight). Elders will ensure that fathers and older brothers do not confiscate bicycles from girls on the grounds that females are too insignificant to merit something so valuable.

Parents sometimes try to save daughters the risk of walking several hours each way to school by lodging them in town. But the result is sometimes sexual extortion; if a girl wishes to continue her education by staying in cheap lodgings, the price is repeated rape. With bicycles, those girls will now be able to stay at home.

World Bicycle Relief has given out more than 70,000 bicycles so far, nearly 70 percent to women and girls. It expects to hand out 20,000 bicycles this year. And if all goes well, Abel may be the first of tens of thousands of Zimbabwean students to get a bike.

So, for Abel, this is something of a fairy-tale ending. But one of my challenges as a journalist is that many donors want to help any specific individual I write about, while few want to support countless others in the same position.

One obstacle is donor fatigue and weariness with African corruption and repeated aid failures. Those are legitimate concerns. But this column isn’t just a story about a boy and a bike. Rather, it’s an example of an aid intervention that puts a system in place, one that is sustainable and has local buy-in, in hopes of promoting education, jobs and a virtuous cycle out of poverty. It’s a reminder that there are ways to help people help themselves, and that problems can have solutions — but we need to multiply them. Just ask Abel."


  1. Hi, I was born in Malawi - just up the road from Zimbabwe - and have an enduring interest in Africa bikes (I working on a design specifically for women right now). The school travel issue is starkly real, especially for girls where rape or the extortion of transport/accomodtion for sexual favours also means AIDS. 1/4 of those girls will die in a few years. A friend of mine runs a school in Zambia and it is her greatest fear.

    Back to bikes, I think one of the biggest issues for a sustainable porgram is maintainance, both costs and parts quality. Here a blog post that illuminates that.

    And a few other links on bike projects

    This group seeds bicycle projects in africa
    From one of thier projects here's a blog from a student team building a cargo bike in/for Kenya

    A cargo bike to carry coffee

    And World Bike

    And with recent talk of bamboo bikes, here's an African bamboo bike.

    Cheers, Alistair

  2. I have heard or read about bicycle programs only briefly and without paying too much attention, perhaps because as Kristof noted, it is easy to become discouraged by corruption and aid failures. Thanks for reprinting this, because it makes me want to look into such programs with renewed optimism and interest. Bikes are powerful in many ways; thanks for the reminder of this very important one.

  3. Thanks Ron, (and Alistair) GREAT pollinating.

  4. Allister,

    I have seen the Bicycle Design in Africa videos. Aren't they German students on some kind of internship? Will they get college credits for what they do there? Its really interesting.

    As for the oppression against women, its a whole different world there. Can you imagine if something like that would happen Western countries?

  5. Ron noted ...
    I have seen the Bicycle Design in Africa videos. Aren't they German students on some kind of internship? Will they get college credits for what they do there? Its really interesting.

    Ron, it's a group using competition to try and seed new projects. The winner gets a designer and team of students to help implement thier design.

    Here's how it works ...

    Cycling out of Poverty invites students, designers and other cycling advocates to submit ideas for the African Bicycle Design Contest. The aim is to “design affordable quality bicycles tuned to the needs of (potential) cyclists in Africa,” especially workers who need to transport heavy and bulky goods, and women.

    The contest is supported by the Dutch Ministry of Housing, Planning and the Environment. During the first phase people to submit their ideas/designs. A professional jury of designers and sustainable social entrepreneurship experts will select five winning entries, which will be passed on to a design team that will develop the ideas into prototypes.

    In this phase a student design team (who you saw on the video) and professional design coach refine the prototype and develop a business plan for manufacturing and marketing. The winning team will be awarded with a trip to Africa to kick-start the manufacturing process.

    This years competion is still open, deadline October 1, 2010. details here

    Cheers, Alistair

    P.S. it was looking for answers on effciency, wind resistance, wheel size and crank length for a women's school transport bike that lead me to your useful and lively blog. Poor East African women are 7-10 inches shorter on average than fit American/European Males, which seems to be the starting template for many designs. How different would a design be starting from there?

  6. Anonymous8:18 PM

    I lived in Malawi, where Mr. Williamson was born for the past two years. And, from the looks of it ( the bikes they are making are almost identical to the ones that are available locally. This is good on two accounts: 1) replacement parts made in China are readily available (good luck trying to find a Shimano anything without flying to South Africa) and 2) the bike World Bicycle Relief is making, I presume, is of a much greater quality than the cheap Chinese and Indian ones there that everyone rides. Looks like a great project all around. Thanks for the heads up.


Thank you. I read every single comment.