An Amusement & Diversion for The Genteel Cyclist. Daily.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Interview with the righteous World Bicycle Relief people, part 1

We spoke with Chris Strout at World Bicycle Relief today, and we got the skinny on WBR's righteous efforts in Africa to distribute more than 20,000 bikes to volunteer health workers. WBR has been busy trying to get bikes to needy people around the world ever since the Indian ocean tsunami of 2005. The program has blossomed and evolved, and is now working in Zambia.

Give us a little background on how World Bicycle Relief got started.

Two years ago, when the tsunami hit, SRAM founder F.K. Day was sitting at home watching the news, and he realized he had to do something. He thought, "I'm part of the bike industry, maybe I can round up some children's bikes and ship them over." When he actually got over there to check it out, he realized there was so much more that we could do beyond children's bikes. We need bikes for fisherman, we need bikes for health care workers, we need bikes for kids to get to school. So he put together that program. SRAM and Trek both stepped up to the plate and said yes, we're going to support this effort. That said, they're NOT Trek bikes with SRAM components! Trek and SRAM are benefactors, they are not suppliers.

So where do the bikes come from? Are they Magnas from China?!

Not exactly. Part of our program is to source locally as much as we can. There was a bike manufacturer in Sri Lanka that really stepped up to the plate and we put 24,000 bikes on the ground in the first 14 months after the tsunami.

In Africa, there are Indian bike companies with infrastructure on the ground. What we wanted to do was find a supplier who would want to work with us in getting the bikes to the people who need them, we also wanted to make sure that they'd be willing to improve the design of the bikes themselves. What has been put into Africa for the past 60 years is basically the old Rally Roadster design, and for 60 years companies have cut costs, so the original intent and beauty of the Rally Roadster has basically been stripped down to its bare essentials, with stuff falling off of it, pedals that break within a month, rod brakes that fall apart within a couple of weeks. So we worked with an Indian bike company called Ta Ta, and they manufacture all the parts, and we've worked with them to improve the design--better rims, better nipples, coaster brakes. Then we're also training people in Zambia to be mechanics.

The current program gets bikes to health care volunteers, but you're also rolling out a microloan program consisting of bikes that you'll sell to people outside the health care program. How does that work?

The bikes cost $109, and that works out in Africa to be about a third of a person's asset base. But it becomes an asset multiplier, too. So we will be providing microloans aiming at the bicycle, and they pay that back over time. The bike becomes a multiplier because they can get to market to sell their goods, they can get to health care clinics, they can do all the things that bike mobility allows them to do.

Coming next, the exciting conclusion: What's a "culturally appropriate bicycle?"-- ANSWERED!

Photo courtesy of World Bicycle Relief