Charity that doesn’t spin its wheels

Bored by retirement, a B.C. businessman founded Bicycles for Humanity, which rounds up used two-wheelers and ships them to Africa

Published January 3, 2008 by Globe and Mail 

Bored by retirement, a B.C. businessman founded Bicycles for Humanity, which rounds up used two-wheelers and ships them to Africa

VANCOUVER — Pat Montani seemed to have it all.

Wealth, health and early retirement. Only one thing was missing: Mr. Montani wasn't happy.

"I'd had it," the high-tech business mogul recalled this week. "Sitting around the country club, worrying about your golf score, or your neighbour's golf score. … That simply didn't appeal to me.

"You reach a point in your life when you move from success to insignificance, waiting to die. So I gave it up."

Mr. Montani decided it was time to do some good in the world. But not in a grand, showy manner, waving his money around.

Instead, he lowered his sights towards the humble bicycle – used bicycles at that.

Two years later, Mr. Montani's Kelowna-based charity brainchild, Bicycles for Humanity (B4H), has taken off. There are now chapters across the country, while similar ventures have been launched in the United States and England.

The idea is simplicity itself. Millions of unwanted bicycles end up in landfills every year. Why not organize folks to donate their used bikes, rather than junking them, and ship the two-wheelers off to impoverished Africa, where merely getting from one place to another is a tiring, time-consuming chore?

Using bicycles, rural health-care workers can visit more patients more often, women can fetch more water from the local well, and children can cut their long, daily walks to school.

So far, the accelerating bicycle drive has concentrated mostly on Namibia, where a reputable, on-the-ground organization funnels the bikes to self-styled Bicycle Empowerment Centres in needy villages.

Over the past two years, nearly 4,000 bicycles have made their way to the poor, desolate African country, shipped in 11 large containers that set organizers back about $8,000 each in purchase and transportation costs.

Mr. Montani is amazed by the response to an idea he hatched after delivering a few bikes to an orphanage in Mexico, then discovering a greater need in Africa by Googling the phrase "Who needs bikes."

"Sometimes, something fits and resonates with a lot of people," he said. "Bicycles are universal. It's fun here. It's fun there. It's something the little guy can do. It gives people a chance to do good at a very small level in their own community."

Mr. Montani contrasted the homespun, grassroots appeal of his organization with "lots of jaded people out there writing big cheques" to vast NGOs that are not accountable. "They find out later the CEO makes a million dollars a year and has a corporate jet."

The energetic, outdoorsy businessman, who turned 58 on Sunday, splits his time between British Columbia's sunny Okanagan Valley and wintry Whistler, where his wife works as a school counsellor.

Mr. Montani has a long record of starting, then selling successful companies, retiring, then unretiring. After his most recent bout of restlessness, which also led to B4H, he began IPV Gateways, a video-conferencing outfit, with three friends in Toronto. It is now the largest such company in the world.

But bicycles take up much of his time. "Doing things to help others is way more fun and rewarding than running a business and making money," Mr. Montani said. "It's been a great ride so far."

Moira Le Patourel was one of those inspired by Bicycles for Humanity, which provides marketing savvy and a sound support network for groups seeking to become involved.

As a Grade 12 student in affluent West Vancouver, Ms. Le Patourel helped her school raise funds and collect 400 bicycles that ended up at an orphanage outside the Namibian capital of Windhoek.

"So many people need so much and they don't get it their entire life. I just wanted to help," she said. "You find that it's not so hard to help. It's not impossible. Sometimes I think my generation needs a kick in the pants."

Ms. Le Patourel donated her mother's old bicycle, still with the child seat on the back that took her so many kilometres as a youngster. "We used to ride all over the place. It had so many memories for me. But I'd rather the bike was used than just be a memory."

Not everyone is a fan of B4H-type programs. Some aid experts believe more focused donations, even straight cash, serve struggling countries better than so-called feel-good movements sending secondhand goods to Africa with little certainty of how they will be used.

Mr. Montani acknowledged that early bike projects often failed because there was no centralized structure in place to ensure they worked.

"We are not perfect, but we have focus," he said. "We know who we work with. Our model allows anyone to get involved, and 100 per cent of every dollar goes directly to shipping and buying containers."

A recent BBC radio series on the worldwide impact of the bicycle extolled the benefit of bikes from Mr. Montani's organization that wound up in Okathitu, an isolated Namibian village 1,000 kilometres north of Windhoek. A home-based care worker there told the reporter: "I feel very proud and good to have a bicycle. It makes a difference. Now I am able to go to places I never reached before."

Some bikes are also sold to provide support money for rural orphanages and to purchase medication to combat AIDS and malaria. As well, local people are trained to maintain the bicycles.

"One health-care volunteer we surveyed services 17 bikes a month, after receiving our training and a tool kit," said Michael Linke, who runs the Bicycle Empowerment Network in Namibia that co-ordinates B4H projects there.

Mr. Montani said the goal of Bicycles for Humanity is easy to grasp. "It's not about bikes. It's about people helping people to a better way of life."