Donate Your Bike, Save the World?

In Africa's poor rural areas, some children walk 10 mi. to school every morning.

January 8, 2009, 12:08 AM

LONDON, Oct. 3, 2007 — -- 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.

World Bicycle Relief is just as enthusiastic about its program. In 2005, the group reached out to victims of the tsunami by sending 24,300 bikes to Sri Lanka. "We've calculated that 88 percent of recipients are still using their bikes," said Strout, "and they save up to 30 percent of their income."

American charities have been giving old bicycles a second life in developing countries since the '90s. Bikes not Bombs, a program based in Massachusetts, has distributed over 30,000 bicycles to Africa, South America and the Caribbean since 1984. New Jersey-based Pedals for Progress has distributed 108,424 bikes.

Despite the number of independent groups involved -- the International Bicycle Fund has 13 U.S.-based programs listed on its site -- piecing together viable bicycles and shipping them to a different continent is no small feat. Programs like Jole Rider therefore must resort to creative ways to minimize cost, sometimes pulling resources from unexpected places.

The program relies on inmates incarcerated in Gloucester, Cardiff, the Isle of White, London and Manchester to refurbish the bikes and replace old parts. "We have a team of engineers working on the bikes, but a big part of this process is Her Majesty's prison service," Swettenham explained. "We exchange the bikes with the prisons: The inmates work on the bicycles and return them to us in exchange for more."

Meanwhile, World Bicycle Relief relies on one of the largest importers in the world, Tata Industries, to deliver spare parts to Zambia and train mechanics to assemble them on the ground. "Our bikes are based on an existing design, the British roadster, which we improved," explained Strout.

The group is also training locals to become self-sufficent bike mechanics. "We give them two days of business training, three days of technical training, a bike, and they start off with a client base of about 50 caregivers."

Training locals to care for their bicycles is an important component of sustainable development. American charities often use the training as an incentive: Some programs, like Indiana-based Village Bicycle Project, which conducts one-day bike repair workshops in Ghana, have set up earn-a-bike systems. At the end of the free workshop, Ghanaians can buy a bike for $15.

"Other than the shipping cost, one justification is that people tend to value things more if they have paid for it," said the director of the International Bicycle Fund, David Mozer. Some programs use other techniques to make ends meet. "The shipping cost is about $10 to $15 per bike," said Mozer, "so some programs charge $10-$15 for receiving the bikes as 'Shipping and Handling' fees."

The fact that it is quite difficult for the average person to dispose of a bicycle is one of the keys to these programs' success. Bicycles are made of so many different parts that they become difficult to dismantle. Private donors, schools and police stations who cannot return lost or stolen bikes, all provide Jole Rider with precious cargo. "In addition, a typical recycling station gives us 15 bikes a week," said Swettenham.

In the United States, many bikes finish their lives in back alleys or in rivers. Although it is impossible to calculate the number of old bikes available for recycling, 18.7 million adult and children bicycles were sold in the United States last year, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association, the continuation of a steadily growing flow. Undeniably, America is sitting on a wealth of unused bicycles.

"A great number just hang in people's garages, we know that much" said Mozer. An old bicycle too beaten-up to fix can still be taken apart by recycling facilities and charity programs. Any viable parts -- pedals, brakes, frames, handlebars, gears or saddles -- can be reused to fit other incomplete bicycles.

All it takes is for an owner to get in touch with these programs, or simply their local bike shop. If it is not involved in a collection scheme, it will direct them to the right program.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events