Feature: Recycle your cycle to help Third World communities

Your old bike could change someone's life

So, you’ve bought a new bike and have reluctantly agreed to part with its predecessor. It won't fetch much on the second-hand market, and maybe isn't in a great state of repair, so what are the options open to you?

You could, of course, simply take your former trusty steed down to the local tip where its future falls to the sweet mercies of the household recycling depot employees. Or you could pass it on via your local Freecycle group; who knows, you might even catch a glimpse of it out on your local streets or hills.

However, charities collecting, repairing and reallocating unwanted bicycles offer an alternative option that can genuinely change lives. Ranging from local community programmes to overseas development projects, they usually involve the collection of second-hand bicycles donated by the public, which are then repaired and serviced, to ensure long-term rideability and safety, before being handed to new users, either in the UK or abroad.

The majority of these charitable organisations work to provide bicycles for communities in Africa, an environment in which it’s easy to see the impact that a functioning pair of wheels can have on an individual – or even a whole village. Locals often need to travel long distances, even for day to day errands such as collecting water, firewood or attending school, with little or no motorised transport available. The introduction of a bicycle can make a huge difference, cutting travel times right down and massively improving quality of life very easily. For children, it can make all the difference to regularly attend school and receive a decent education.

Second-hand bikes donated to Jole Rider are delivered to schools in The Gambia

Organisations operating in Africa include Jole Rider’s Bikes 4 Africa projects in The Gambia, which focus on providing bicycles for schoolchildren in remote rural communities, mostly in the central and eastern regions of the country. A high proportion of these youngsters would otherwise have to walk more than three miles, often up to 10, to get to school. Since the first shipment in April 2006, jole rider have sent 6,588 bikes – an average of 2,200 a year.

These are mainly donated by the public, but also by police forces and businesses, and some are collected from recycling centres. They're then repaired and refurbished by prison inmates or, most recently, by troubled youths and young offenders in the Wiltshire area, where the charity is based, through the ‘Young People – Fresh Choices’ mPower2Achieve project. This is designed to reduce crime by teaching practical skills and improving the self-esteem of young people.

Schoolchildren are among those who benefit the most from the new (to them) bikes

Also active in Africa is the UK non-profit organisation Re Cycle, whose work with partners in the recipient countries makes for a highly targeted operation. Work with the Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN) in Namibia has resulted in the creation of bicycle ambulances which allow healthcare professionals to reach remote areas. The medical arena is one that profits greatly from the provision of bikes by Re Cycle’s partners.

Not only Namibia but several other African countries now use donated bicycles to carry much-needed AIDS/HIV care to those requiring it. Bikes have also helped rural communities to gain access to education, clean water and fuel. Also active in the UK in collecting, repairing and shipping bikes to Africa and the Third World are Northern Ireland based Wheels in Action, as well as Transaid, who specialise in providing and maintaining all forms of transport, including, but not exclusively bicycles.

A simple but effective bicycle ambulance in action in Namibia thanks to BEN

Charitable organisations can often profit from association with a high-profile name. Trials riding legend Hans Rey has taken that a step further, setting up his own US-based charity Wheels4Life, which focuses on providing bicycles and setting up local repair workshops. Wheels4Life spans the globe, with over 80 projects in 20 countries, and more than 2,000 bikes distributed to date. With projects currently underway in Bolivia, Madagascar, Tanzania, Nepal, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines, among others, it’s an ambitious endeavour.

A new film about the charity's work is now available, Wheels4Life – The Film – A Story About Giving, which is narrated by John McEnroe and had its UK premiere at BikeRadar Live. It was filmed over a period of 14 months at one of the Tanzania projects and shows the importance of bicycles to these rural communities. The fundraising DVD costs US$10 from the Wheels 4 Life website. You can watch a teaser below:

Other US based bike charities include Pedals for Progress, who collect, repair and ship sewing machines and bicycles to locations across the globe, and World Bicycle Relief, who share a similar goal of providing quality bicycles to make a difference in the developing world.

But it’s not just overseas communities that reap the rewards from recycling unwanted bikes. Several projects have been started to help change lives in the UK. The Bristol Bike Project takes donations of unwanted bikes and parts, which are then worked on by project members together with groups of people from the community for whom new skills and  a bicycle at the end of the day are an important reward.

Workers from the Bristol Bike Project carry out repairs at St Paul's Adventure Playground

Beneficiaries include drink and drug rehab groups, asylum seekers and refugees, women seeking to exit prostitution and young offenders. Similar in character is The Bike Station in Edinburgh, which works to refurbish and repair unwanted bikes, which are then either sold to the public or passed on to charities, youth groups and other organisations to promote sustainable transport.

One thing all these organisations have in common is that they need donations of bikes (and money) to keep going, but also donations of time from volunteers, to help with sorting, repairs and even loading containers for transportation. So, if you have a bike to dispose of, or an hour or so spare, get in touch.

The happy recipient of a Wheels4Life bike thanks trials star Hans Rey

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