How World Bicycle Relief improves thousands of lives

Non-profit group’s FK Day explains how providing bikes makes a massive difference to people in some of the world’s poorest regions

by Mat Brett   June 21, 2012  

Since 2005, World Bicycle Relief has provided more than 100,000 specially designed, locally assembled, rugged bicycles to disaster victims, healthcare workers, students and entrepreneurs in Asia and Africa.

We’ve featured the SRAM pART projects a couple of times on Road.cc – where artists turn bicycle parts into works of art and auction them off in aid of World Bicycle Relief. There’s an auction going on right now (21-23 June 2012) which you can join online. But we’ve never covered World Bicycle Relief in much depth.

In this interview, World Bicycle Relief President FK Day chats about the details behind his group’s durable Buffalo Bicycles and how they help improve countless lives…

How is World Bicycle Relief using bikes to help people?
FK It’s all about transportation and the productivity increase that occurs when you take someone who walks for transportation, and give him or her a bicycle. It’s as if a revolution occurs – a revolution of productivity, a revolution of transportation.

The product development, discipline and process that it takes to put someone in the Tour de France or on the podium at Kona is the exact same to put a good bike in the hands of people all over the planet. No one is developing bikes or products for the bottom of the bicycle market. Instead, they are simply taking higher-end stuff and dumbing it down, but that’s not going to work in the conditions in Africa or Asia.

The needs throughout the world are so much different than what we think of within the cycling community. In poor or harsh conditions, nobody cares about weight. They care about how much you can carry and how far you can go. They wonder, is the bike repairable? Can they rely on it? Are there spare parts available in the field? 

What are the main differences between World Bicycle Relief Buffalo bicycles and other bikes?
FK
All of our bikes are single speed. All of our bikes use only steel parts. Everything is steel because it is a very good product for that environment and is also repairable. There’s a temptation to inject aluminum rims, but they wouldn’t last because a cracked aluminum rim has to be thrown away. If your steel rim cracks, you have the ability to fix it in the field.

That’s an important part of what we do – making these bikes repairable at the level of technology that occurs where the bike is being used. I remember once I was out riding on one of our bikes in rural Zambia. I was riding with an editor who had a wobbly crank on her bike and was concerned about being able to fix it. Well, I had a rock and I had a wrench, and that was all I needed to fix it right there in the field. That’s what needs to be able to happen.

What are the most efficient ways World Bicycle Relief can go into a country like Kenya or South Africa and have the biggest impact on people’s lives?
FK
Education, health care and economic development are huge struggles in the poorest parts of the world. That’s why we chose to go out and test the impact of bicycles – of transportation – on those areas of development. For example, if you’re trying to get AIDS care and medicine out into the field in a rural area, how can a bicycle help?

These products are flown in from the United States and Europe and transported from the airport into the main towns. But it’s difficult to transport them to the rural section, and if you can’t get them there then you’ve wasted time and money. That’s where the bicycles become a critical link in the movement of goods and services.

Education is another big area. Explain how a bicycle can help a child, especially a girl, stay in school.
FK The long distances to school are a really big issue. The amount of time taken to walk miles to school each day takes away from time needed for students to help their families, study, work in the fields, or deliver produce to the market. When a girl can ride a bike to school instead, it allows her the time to do all of these other things for her family, which then encourages her family to keep her in school.

What are some common distances students walk to school?
FK
Five or six miles each way is very normal. In many cases, girls and boys have to leave before sun-up to get to school. They’re tired. They’re hungry because they’re not really well fed. By the time they study and are ready to go home, it’s often already dark.

This is terrible for any child, but the girls in particular. They become so exhausted and vulnerable due to this cycle that parents eventually pull them out of school because they need them to have time and energy for household chores, which are considered a girl’s duty.

How can people help to support World Bicycle Relief and its mission?
FK
Donate! To put a bicycle in the hands of a girl student, for example, costs about $134. That includes the cost of the bike, shipping, assembly, delivery into the field and training mechanics at a ratio of one mechanic for every 50 bikes. That’s a hugely impactful thing.

Second, raise awareness. There are many individuals and organizations who have become heavily involved with World Bicycle Relief, either from a marketing standpoint or raising money. We have an incredible grassroots fundraising and awareness-raising program that is open for all to participate in, from elementary school groups to professional triathletes.
On an even more involved level, supporters can go on a tour of our work in the field. A group will come to Zambia for a week, spending the first day getting an overview of our programs in the field and building their own World Bicycle Relief Bike.

For the next few days, they’ll ride that bike to visit many of our sites and see the impact of our work on people’s lives, while encountering Zambia’s beautiful sites and culture along the way. It’s amazingly eye opening to meet girls who walk five or six miles each way every single school day. You see the mud huts with thatched roofs where they live, the goats, chickens, or land that they tend to. Then you understand what these girls are faced with, and that education is literally the only portal out of that type of subsistence living.

It’s then that you get a real sense of the power of bicycles. You think, “I love riding my bike really fast in Chicago,” which is great, but it’s so much more than that with World Bicycle Relief. A bike in the hands of a girl in the developing world will rewrite her future.

World Bicycle Relief is a Chicago-based non-profit group founded by SRAM in 2005. To learn more about the group or to make a donation, go to worldbicyclerelief.org.