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Nonprofit Gives Zambians a Leg Up

Published January 4, 2010


LUSAKA, Zambia—Steven Chilinga swings his leg over the seat of his bicycle and pedals expertly along the rutted dirt path that leads from his home on the outskirts of the rural Zambian village of Keembe. A wisp of a boy, he must stand to reach the pedals of his adult-sized frame.

Like most children in Zambia, Steven wants a bike he can grow into. A shy youth who takes in the world through one eye—he has limited vision in his right eye despite multiple surgeries to correct a birth deformity—he is small for his 13 years.

His World Bicycle Relief bike should last long enough for him to grow into. That’s an affirmation of success for the nonprofit organization’s three-year effort to design a bike that can withstand the rigors of daily use in rural Africa.

Here, bike parts are quickly devoured by rough roads and pervasive dust. Frames must withstand heavy loads, long distances and frequent use.

By taking the exacting measures of product design and testing applied to high-end product for developed countries to this market, World Bicycle Relief has created a durable product that holds up under these harsh conditions.

Its methodical approach to research and development is not novel, but such practices have rarely been applied in any industry for undeveloped markets. At the bottom of the consumer pyramid, products are cheaply made and fall apart quickly.

That’s a problem that World Bicycle Relief president F.K. Day is committed to fixing. “Junk has stunted the ability of this tool to help people in the field,” said Day.

Durable Design. When Day first visited Zambia four years ago, he purchased bikes from each brand of local distributor and tested the bikes in the field. They all failed almost immediately.

“There wasn’t a quality, value-oriented bicycle on the market before. It was race-to-the-bottom stuff,” said Bruce Wilkinson, regional vice president for World Vision, an international humanitarian organization World Bicycle Relief has partnered with.

There is plenty of evidence of poor-quality bikes: bikes with only spindles left for pedals, broken top tubes repaired with messy welds and replacement brakes using makeshift pulley systems. But Wilkinson said despite obvious product flaws, no one was listening until World Bicycle Relief came in.

Day set up focus groups and solicited feedback from users in the field. He determined that bikes fail due to poor design, poor manufacturing, poor shipping, poor assembly and lack of maintenance and repair. So he began working through the supply chain, addressing each of those concerns.

To match ingrained cultural expectations he modified the existing design based on the British Raleigh roadster. The bike is a single-speed for simplicity and ease of repair and is compatible with available spare parts.

World Bicycle Relief contracted TATA India to manufacture the frames. It bundles components and ships them to the TATA factory in Zambia to be assembled locally.

Since its first-generation bikes that used parts only made in India, World Bicycle Relief has sought out better quality parts from China and Taiwan. It sourced a Chinese-made heavy duty hub from KT, Taiwan’s largest hub and coaster-brake manufacturer.

“The bike you see today is literally using global sourcing,” said Day, who once employed that strategy as the vice president of product development at SRAM. He still draws on his knowledge and that of SRAM engineers. And he has tapped into industry contacts like Cannondale, which tests the bikes at its advanced testing facility.

World Bicycle Relief bikes have gone through five key iterations in his ongoing quest to make them more robust. “But there is still room for improvement,” Day said.

Economic Enabler. To effectively distribute bicycles in the field, World Bicycle Relief tapped into an established humanitarian organization with imbedded relationships and infrastructure in local communities. World Vision integrates bikes into existing programs and determines where bikes are needed.

Part of the appeal of a bicycle for such a humanitarian organization is it cuts across three critical areas of aid work: healthcare, education and economic development. “It touches all of those and is a critically enabling element,” Day said.

Its most expansive program to date has been providing 23,000 bikes to healthcare workers through a U.S. government funded program called RAPIDS. Bikes provide mobility for 19,800 volunteer caregivers who visit households and provide basic heathcare. Caregivers focus on providing consistent treatment for the 14 percent of adults in Zambia infected with HIV/AIDS and preventing further infection. Caregivers also care for some of the 1.2 million orphans and vulnerable children in Zambia.

The unpaid workers receive a bicycle through a work-to-own program—they keep the bicycle if they stay in the program for two years. That incentive has not only increased productivity but also has resulted in a 97 percent retention rate over four years.

Bicycles multiply caregivers’ efforts four times versus walking, allowing them to visit clients, pick up medicines for patients and take sick clients to clinics as far as 20 kilometers away. A bike also improves caregivers’ economic situation by facilitating mobility for themselves and their families.

World Bicycle Relief is six months into a program to deliver 49,000 bikes over three years to students, teachers and community leaders in 16 rural school districts in Zambia to improve enrollment, where only 20 percent of students finish secondary school.

Most students get up at dawn to do chores then walk long distances to get to school. By the time they get home they have little time to do homework or contribute to their families. A bicycle shortens their travel time, giving them more time to help support their families in the evening and increasing their likelihood to stay in school.

Because girls are more likely to drop out, 70 percent of bikes go to female students.

To date, World Bicycle Relief has delivered close to 30,000 bikes into Zambia, mostly as gifts. That’s a small drop in the pond, and far short of reaching the level where Day believes bikes should be in the region.

Currently about 15 million bikes a year are delivered to sub-Saharan Africa, where 800 million people live. Day said that number is ridiculously low for a region that should bring in closer to 80 million bikes a year.

Ultimately, he said bikes will reach appropriate levels not through philanthropy but through economic development programs that encourage purchases.

“Economic principals are rooted in the value proposition of the bike,” Day said. “If it is increasing the productivity of a recipient to the point where they can pay it back, we begin to establish the value proposition.”

To that end, WBR partnered with Harmos, one of the largest microfinance institutions in Zambia, to loan individuals money to purchase bicycles. Most Zambians can’t afford the cost of a $134 bike outright, but through installment payments bicycles become accessible. Entrepreneurs can increase carrying capacity and time to market to generate more income.

The pilot program began in the Chongwe district outside Lusaka in January 2008 with 1,000 bikes. The Chongwe branch was the first location in Zambia to loan money for bicycles. Branch supervisor Juvenalis Mulimbika said the value of a bicycle for a Zambian is the equivalent a vehicle. “Giving the asset to somebody, you see the impact,” he said.

Scaling Up. To date, World Bicycle Relief’s programs have been primarily focused in Zambia, a flat, land-locked country the size of Texas. Impoverished and surrounded by seven countries in various levels of disintegration, it served as an ideal test market.

“Zambia has been a fantastic test lab. Now we’re looking at ways to expand programs on a revenue neutral basis,” said Dave Neiswander, a former investment banker who Day recruited three years ago to run World Bicycle Relief’s African operations.

It recently hired national program directors in Zimbabwe and Kenya. It plans to send its second container of 1,000 bikes to Zimbabwe this month and it’s expanding micro-lending programs to dairy farmers in Kenya.

The organization aspires to use the template it created in Zambia to bring about wholesale changes in the transportation modes and economic conditions of developing nations.

“We want to see if the model is replicable. If we can’t run a program that’s sustainable and scalable, it’s a hobby. I don’t want a hobby,” Day said.

Topics associated with this article: Advocacy/Non-profits

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