In the new eco-conscious urban world, cycling to work is a growing trend. Cities are promoting this form of healthy commute by painting bike lanes across towns, and Paris has become the latest city to stock streets with free "public" bicycles for commuters to pick up and drop off at will.
But in Africa, biking is not just an alternative mode of transportation, an ethical fad or even a hobby. On a continent where a car often costs over 10 times the average annual income, in rural areas owning a bicycle can make the difference between earning a living or not, getting an education or not, and receiving medical care or dying.
A few independent charities, based in the United States, Canada, England and even as far as Australia, are responding to that vital need by providing bikes to some of the poorest people of the world.
Chicago-based World Bicycle Relief has so far distributed 6,600 bicycles to World Vision and USAid caregivers since it launched Project Zambia last year. "Each caregiver has an average of 20 HIV/AIDS patients," explained communication manager Chris Strout. "Their care goes from bathing their patients, making sure they take their medication, to taking them to the clinic on their bicycles."
In Zambia, a secondhand bike costs between $75 and $200. With the country's per capita income averaging at $630 per person according to the World Bank 2006 Development Indicator -- that number plummeting to less than $300 in rural areas -- most Zambians find themselves traveling on foot.
Since doing their rounds on bikes, some caregivers have been able to care for more patients, and their bicycles often act as ambulances when patients have to be taken to the clinic in an emergency. "Caregivers do not provide medical treatments," said Strout, "but they are those people's front line of defense."
The same is true for students commuting to school. Since 2004, British charity Jole Rider has dedicated its efforts to shipping secondhand bicycles from Britain to Gambian school pupils. In a country where education is a luxury and the funds to build school facilities are scarce, few villages have their own schools, and children in the most isolated villages can walk over 10 miles to class every morning.
Only when amateur cyclist and Jole Rider director David Swettenham first brought his idea to Gambia with his partner did he realize how much bikes were needed. "A high school principal told us his students arrived late, exhausted and often weren't able to concentrate," he said.
Since the first shipment of bikes arrived in Gambia in March 2006, Jole Rider has distributed over 1,500 bicycles to pupils of 15 schools, and more are enrolling in the program. "We could send more to each school," Swettenham told ABC News, "and we will, in time."
But already these initiatives are bearing fruits. "In some cases," Swettenham told ABC News, "the number of students who register for school has increased, simply because there is the possibility of having a bike allocated to them." The bikes often become central economic tools for the children and their families, who use them to other effects such as commuting to work and carrying goods.