World Bicycle Relief: transforming communities one bike at a time

In Cycling, Places, Tech / Gear

Since its invention 200 years ago, the humble bicycle has changed the way in which we humans get about: even the introduction of the car a century later couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for two-wheeled travel. But the bike’s impact is about more than just a nice pedal through the countryside. In places like Africa, it is transforming entire communities, thanks in no small part to the work of international charity World Bicycle Relief (WBR).

Photo: World Bicycle Relief

First set up by F.K. Day and Leah Missbach Day in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, WBR went on to distribute more than 24,000 bicycles to displaced survivors across Sri Lanka, helping to reconnect communities and provide access to education, healthcare and livelihoods. Since then, the charity has expanded into Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, choosing countries that have a poor, widely dispersed population without any other affordable or sustainable mode of transport. To date, WBR has distributed an incredible 396,074 bikes through its Bicycles Empowering Education Programme – BEEP for short.

Many school children in places like Africa have to walk several miles to school – if they attend at all – and, for girls in particular, that walk can be fraught with danger. Providing them with a bike not only reduces the amount of time it takes to get to school, but provides invaluable protection, as WBR’s UK chief executive Alison Dufosee explains: “When I was in Zambia, I rode to school with a little girl called Irene, she was thirteen and I said to her: ‘What’s the best thing about having a bike?’ She just said to me: ‘I can peddle faster than a man can run.’ And I thought, oh, my goodness.”

Photo: World Bicycle Relief

Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that providing schoolgirls with bikes in this way is actually having a positive impact on pregnancy rates and WBR is now working on a longitudinal study to assess this evidence more fully. 

WBR’s success lies largely in the way that the BEEP programme is set up. Rather than simply giving a child a bike, WBR incentivises them. “Every child that gets a bike signs a contract to say that they will go to school every day and if they don’t, then they don’t get to keep the bike,” Alison explains. “But, if they complete school and pass their exams, they get to keep it. This has the knock-on effect of helping them to set up their own business or to be able to travel to university. So, it’s a game changer.”What could you give up to raise £95 for World Bicycle Relief?The statistics back this up: in areas where WBR works, school attendance has risen 28% and academic performance gone up by 59% – testament to the enormous social impact bikes can have on a community.

Ownership also brings with it a certain amount of respect, says Alison. “I met a girl in Zambia whose family had been wiped out by AIDS and who was bringing up her six-year-old brother on her own. Her only possession is her bike and she has really good standing in the community because of it – she gets more respect.”

Photo: World Bicycle Relief

WBR is able to do all this by building specially designed and locally assembled rugged bicycles, via its separate social enterprise business called Buffalo Bicycles. This makes it unique in the cycling charity sector because it doesn’t ask people to donate old bikes, which aren’t actually very useful in places where a road might, in fact, be a dusty track.

“I’ve actually cycled one in the UK and in sub-Saharan Africa” says Alison, “and it’s a lot easier to cycle on a rough road than a smooth one simply because it’s been built for that environment.” Costing just £95 each, a Buffalo Bicycle is built specifically for durability and weight – each one has a rear carrier capacity rated to 100 kilograms, meaning that it can easily carry more than one person.

“It’s the Ford of bicycles,” says Alec Seaman, Development Director at WBR. “It’s basically a one size fits all design, which makes our supply chain more cost effective and helps us to ensure the availability of low cost parts.”What could you give up to raise £95 for World Bicycle ReliefAlison adds: “If there’s a child on a bike, it’s likely there’s at least another on the back. We usually say that for every bicycle that we give, it has an impact on five people’s lives.”

And that impact continues to grow, with Buffalo Bicycles providing much improved access to healthcare and boosts economies – either by dramatically reducing the amount of time it takes for a health worker to reach a patient or allowing someone to transport more goods to and from a market.

“When we started giving the kids the bikes, their parents would ask for one too, but we couldn’t because we had a clear educational focus,” says Alison. “But by setting up Buffalo Bicycles, we were able to sell social enterprise bikes to farmers and to local authorities for their health workers and midwives. And because the bike is so rugged, they can carry really heavy loads.” Buffalo Bicycles also sells to other charities and all of the profit it makes goes straight back into WBR, helping it to cut its overheads. “This is really important for our donors who understandably want to know where their money is going.”

Of course, a bike is only useful if it’s in good working order, so WBR also trains local mechanics. “When we deliver the bicycles, they literally come flat-packed,” says Alec. “It’s a massive box of spokes, hubs, rims and tyres. So, we train local mechanics to build them. That way if something goes wrong, they also know how to fix it.” It also provides invaluable employment opportunities.

Alison adds: “With every programme that we implement, we make sure that there’s a mechanics programme working alongside it, because there’s little point in having a bicycle in Africa if you can’t get it fixed. We also give the kids a basic lesson in bicycle first aid, but they know that there will be a mechanic at their school on a certain day at a certain time, so that if there’s something they can’t fix, they can take their bike to them. And also, what we’ve found is that those mechanics who we have trained up and who are branded in our kit are now going away to train and starting their own businesses as well.”How much could you give up to raise £95 for World Bicycle Relief?In the modern charity world, this is the equivalent of hitting the jackpot, since initial support leads to more independent, sustainable economies. It’s also great for donors to see the broader impact that their money is having. But WBR is not resting on its laurels: “Our aim is to get a million bikes in the field, that’s what we really want to do, and the organisation is growing rapidly,” says Alison. As well as the relatively new UK office that she heads up, WBR has also opened fundraising offices in Australia, Switzerland and Amsterdam.

World Bicycle Relief FarmerPhoto: World Bicycle Relief

And the good news is that Proviz customers can also get involved and support this incredible charity – every time you head to the checkout you can choose to donate 50p, simply by ticking the box underneath your order. Proviz will then match your donation. We also make a separate corporate donation every year and to date you have helped us buy 60 Buffalo Bicycles. Based on WBR’s calculations, that means a wider impact on 300 people.

The bicycle effect:

  • Health workers are able to visit up to 45% more patients.
  • Farmers can carry five times more than they could walking to and from market.

WBR has helped:

  • 126,104 students stay in education
  • WBR has helped 62,235 men and women get their businesses off the ground.
  • 138,310 health workers reach more community members.

“Having guys like Proviz championing what we do is incredible for us,” says Alison. “Many of our donors are cyclists and they understand the freedom that being on a bike gives them. It might have even changed their own lives, so they absolutely get what we are trying to do.”

Proviz founder, Anthony Langly-Smith, adds: “What WBR does and what it stands for, is just an amazing gift. We started Proviz up as a company at about the same time that WBR was founded and we’ve grown together in that time. We’re absolutely proud to support this wonderful charity.”

If you would like to donate to World Bicycle Relief, you can make a single donation, set up a gift or give monthly for a 1:1 match on your donation by visiting this link to their donation page.