Two wheels to a better life in Africa

How non-profits and bikes are helping people of developing countries

In the United States and Western Europe cyclists use bikes to better their health and make their community a little greener, however, for those in the developing world, notably Africa, a bike can completely change a person’s life — in some cases it can save a life.  


Four notable US non-profit organizations — including Kona’s Basic Needs Project, Hans Rey’s Wheels4Life, New York’s One Street and World Bicycle Relief — are working hard to bring bikes and bike centered livelihoods to people in the developing world.

Getting wheels to the right people

One of the largest parts of the equation is to get the right bikes to Africa. In the 1980s there was a movement to bring food and today, according to some, these bicycles have the potential to do a lot more good than a ration.

One of the most prominent programs delivering bikes to where they are needed remains World Bicycle Relief, which was founded in 2005 and has since provided more than 71,000 bikes to disaster victims, health caregivers, micro-finance loan recipients and students.

“World Bicycle Relief currently works in Zambia, Kenya and Zimbabwe,” says Matt Pierce, communications manager for World Bicycle Relief. “We have begun plans with World Vision and other NGOs to provide comprehensive bicycle programs as part of economic development and relief efforts in Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Botswana and Lesotho.”

Among the manufacturers looking to get the program rolling by providing bicycles to those in need is Kona Bicycles. The mission of their project is to help provide transport, shelter, food and water to those with difficulty in attaining these basic elements of daily survival.

“Kona believes that the bicycle can save the world,” says Russell Carty, who runs the Kona Basic Needs project. “The problem of transport in Africa was brought to our attention by Bicycling magazine and Bristol Myers Squibb around four years ago and this is how the program for the Kona Africa Bike and Kona Basic Needs started.”

Wheels 4 Life is another non-profit volunteer group that provides cycles to those who cannot even consider a micro-loan. The group was founded by Hans Rey upon the belief that a bicycle is an almost unattainable resource for man, woman or child in the developing world. Wheels4Life’s goal is to provide bicycles to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford one; the group makes special efforts to get bikes to doctors and healthcare workers.

A bicycle can help carry far more than would be possible on foot, and this is possible thanks to wheels4life : a bicycle can help carry far more than would be possible on foot, and this is possible thanks to wheels4life
Carmen Freeman

A bicycle can help carry far more than would be possible on foot

“By having access to a bike, a person can take their produce, whether it is fruit, vegetables or fish to the market, which is often a day’s walk away,” says Carman Freeman of Wheels4Life, “Doctors and nurses are able to cover a far greater area to give life saving vaccines, treatments and health education. By having a bike, a nurse can not only get treatments and vaccines to people faster, she or he can also cover a far greater area leaving more clinic time for more complex treatments and minor surgeries.”

These programs also address how bicycles are integral in providing children an education. Freeman says in some parts of Africa, after the age of 14, children need to commute much greater distances to continue their studies. A 15-mile commute is normal; what would be a short recovery ride for most recreational riders can be an unmanageable commute to a better life, without a bicycle.

Wheels4Life, and other organizations, also offer an avenue for you to donate a bicycle to those who need it in Africa.

Well oiled and working properly

“The average life a bike shipped to Africa from the United States or China is generally less than one month,” says World Bicycle Relief’s Pierce. “Lack of access to spare parts alone often makes use of imported bikes unrealistic.”

Being able to make crucial repairs can be as important as just getting the bikes to those who need them. This is exactly what Sue Knaup, executive director of One Street has in mind with a new program with Ride 4 a Woman (R4W) that is looking to not only bringing bicycles, but also the knowledge to maintain and even repair bicycles to women in Africa.

“One Street’s Social Bike Business program is not just about giving bicycles to individuals,” says Knaup. “Rather, it breaks the cycle of poverty through building a strong leadership team that creates their own bicycling social network, job training and consistent access to affordable, quality transportation bicycles. So the question we need to keep in mind is: How life changing is the program to women in Africa?”

Knaup plans on working with women in Bwindi, Uganda, a nation that currently has a median age of only 15 years (source: CIA World Fact Book 2011) due to the excessive mortality rate due to AIDs. Additionally, the land locked nation suffered greatly under dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote, who both devastated the once thriving economy. As a result, poverty is rampant and today of 70,746 km of roads, a mere 16,272 km are paved (CIA World Fact Book). Any bicycles given to the people of Uganda will need to be maintained, which offers the community even greater potential for improvement with the creation of an economic infrastructure to maintain them.

While this is looks like a beautiful land to ride (and it is), imagine it without the bike and you can see how much a difference these machines make : while this is looks like a beautiful land to ride (and it is), imagine it without the bike and you can see how much a difference these machines make
Carmen Freeman

While this is looks like a beautiful land (and it is), it’s also unforgiving and a bike can make a daily difference for the people here  

“We will be working together to develop their bicycle job training workshop; do intensive, hands-on bicycle repair training; upgrade their bike rental program for tourists; and plan ahead for making their centre a destination for anyone in need of a bike or bicycle repair,” says Knaup. “In other words, our goal is to help R4W become the bicycle experts and providers for their area. They will then be helping change lives of impoverished people one bicycle at a time. And they will be able to charge for these bicycles, the rentals and their bicycle expertise which will make their program sustainable for the long-term.”

The World Bicycle Relief program — keenly aware that a flat tire or broken chain can end a bicycle’s life in the third world provides —specially designed, locally assembled and supremely durable bicycles for the rugged African terrain. With proper maintenance, like that offered by R4W these bikes should last for years.

Not just Africa

For all these reasons, a bicycle in Africa isn’t just a way to stay in shape or provide a healthier commute and it should also be remembered that the need for bicycles isn’t limited to just Africa.


“There is a need for bicycles in most parts of the world, especially in the third world,” says Carty from Kona. “A bicycle is an easy cost effective form of transportation for goods and people [anywhere it’s needed].”