Looking Back: Advocacy Awareness (Readings)

2007 sees a major swing towards a tipping point in the level of interest and involvement from regional and national cycling communities.


Published by Dirt Rag Issue 126
by Eric Matthies

In 2006 there was an increased awareness of using bicycles as means of fighting poverty. Examples of this can be seen in high profile programs such as Konatown, Wheels 4 Life and Project Rwanda in addition to myriad other groups. The programs share a common bond; they bring bicycles to people who are in dire need of affordable and sustainable transportation.

2007 sees a major swing towards a tipping point in the level of interest and involvement from regional and national cycling communities. I've profiled a smattering of theses groups to give you a better idea of what we're talking about here—who runs these programs, how they work and what you can do. This is by no means a complete list; there are literally dozens of operations and more spring up each year.

For mountain bikers, one of the most recognizable names in the business is Tom Ritchey. Following a trip to Rwanda in 2005, Tom worked with an original group of backers that included another mountain biker you might recognize, Gary Boulanger. Gary has moved on to other ventures but the program they started – Project Rwanda – serves as a strong example of the type of thing we're talking about here. One of Project Rwanda's original ideas was to try and establish a manufacturing base for bikes in Africa; an amazing proposition but one that is very complicated to pull off. The focus of the operation has shifted to designing and providing special use bicycles for Rwandan's that address specific needs in the communities there. The group is also raising awareness about the situation in Rwanda, working to establish a micro-finance fund that will subsidize the cost of the bikes and aid in their distribution and supporting the Rwandan National Cycling Team to help connect Rwanda with cycling and the world.

The International Bike Fund is an NGO (non-government organization) founded and operated by David Mozer in Seattle. IBF partners with local programs and functions to provide consultation, strategy, advice and funding support to aid and outreach groups that "encourage social attitudes, infrastructure and market development that promote the use of bicycles and other forms of sustainable transport". As the website states "a great deal of IBF's effort is focused on moving information: researching and answering queries that come to the office, helping partners refine and increase the effectiveness of their respective programs, and publishing information that might be useful for others". IBF provides technical advice, consulting, strategic planning, material support and financial support worldwide. The IBF website is also a great resource for finding a program in the country or region that interests you most.

One of the groups that the IBF supports in Africa is The Village Bicycle Project. I have written about the VBP before in discussing the documentary film "Ayamye", which focuses on life in a rural Ghanaian community that benefited from the VBP program. VBP partners with co-ops like Bikes Not Bombs and Re-Cycle to obtain shipping containers full of used bikes that they import to Ghana. The majority of the bikes are sold to local small businesses and bike repair shops to offset the shipping costs and to bolster the local urban economy. A percentage of the bikes are then put into a program that brings the bikes to rural communities where transportation is both essential and cost prohibitive. A workshop teaches basic maintenance and riding skills to workshop participants who receive a bike via lottery at the end of the class. The bike is not free, but the price is set at around half of what a used bike would cost otherwise. This ensures a sense of ownership and a connection between the bikes and the community. Another big part of VBP's mission is importing tools and training to local mechanics. In a region where a hammer and chisel are go-to tools for the average bike repairman, things like crank pullers and three dollar freewheel tools make a world of difference. The program is highly effective; we returned one year after the workshops and I can vouch for the major impact on people's lives and on the community as a whole.

An interesting program operating in Guatemala is Maya Pedal. They have a unique take on how used bicycles can support the local community; they turn them into machines. Water pumps, grain millers, generators, plows, cargo haulers and many other ingenious devices are built from used bikes that were collected in a similar manner to VBP. Villagers work with the program to construct the machines and design their own subprograms that bolster economic growth. For example a women's group in one town uses a bicycle blender to manufacture pure aloe shampoo that is sold to market while elsewhere a family farm built a bike driven mill and now makes feed for local livestock.

The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy is another umbrella group that partners with smaller NGO's. One of ITDP's unique attributes is the development of the "California Bike", a relatively affordable and durable ATB that can be sold or distributed in developing markets. The California Bike is a cornerstone of the Wheels 4 Life program—a non-profit group founded by legendary off-road and trials rider Hans Rey. Kona is running a similar distribution model with bicycles of their own design, the key to which is the 'adoption' of the bikes by folks like us so that they can be given to disadvantaged communities in Africa. This month folks on the Dirt Rag Forum raised $300, or three bikes, with the Konabiketown project.

Bringing bikes to the people isn't the only way cyclists are helping change the world. Recently, the elite pro road-racing team of Saunier Duval partnered with Planète Urgence to plant one new tree in Mali for every kilometer raced by the team in 2007. Considering that almost 70% of Mali's landmass is facing desertification and the Saunier Duval boys will race thousands of kilos this year, the project has potential for huge impact. Not to mention the high-profile media push surrounding an international racing team, raising awareness of the situation in a country that few people really know much about beyond Madonna's adoption visit. Saunier Duval's tag line –"we ride for human rights." Nuff said.

On a local level, national news followed our own intrepid Dirt Rag in reporting on the work of "The Bicycle Man", Moses Mathis' program in North Carolina who's mission "is to take kids from drug infested neighborhoods, introduce them to a positive environment, building confidence, self-esteem and good work habits" by enrolling them in earn-a-bike style programs. What's an earn-a-bike program? Look no further than co-op bike shops like Bikes-not-Bombs in Boston, The Bicycle Kitchen in LA, Working Bikes Collective in Chicago and many others. These community organizations, like Mr. Mathis, run workshops that take disenfranchised kids and teach them how to strip down, rebuild and functionally repair a bicycle, which they then 'earn' at the end of the program. The results of these grassroots classes are vast—all the kids gain a sense of self-worth, some become mechanics or messengers and earn a living, others just find the shop as alternative to drugs and gangs.

I could go on highlighting programs all day. The bottom line is, you can get involved on many levels. Maybe all you can do is give a few bucks to the organizations that appeal to you. They all need the financial support and every website will direct you to a donations page. Perhaps you have a bike you'd like to donate to a group like VBP or Maya Pedal. Seeking out cooperatives in your area is a good starting point—larger established co-ops like those in Seattle, Boston, London and Chicago often serve as collection points for bikes going to the developing world. Many of these co-ops also run earn-a-bike programs that need parts, old bicycles and most importantly, human power to teach and inspire—volunteer! If you're lucky enough to travel and ride,good ambassador; fout if there is a program or just a local shop in the area you're passing through and see what you might be able to do to help out for a day or two. A few spare tools left behind can have a lasting impact far beyond your visit. The easiest thing to do is spread the word; our cycling community is growing every day and the more you get involved with local rides, the more ideas will take root that benefit specific needs important to your interests and curiosities.

Urban and suburban cyclists are gravitating towards co-ops, quasi-legal mass rides, local bike shops and organized events where these activities are discussed and promoted. Through these touch-points we connect to a politicized energy as awareness grows about other means of using bicycles. We begin to see that there is more out there than some epic race, more to Hans Rey's pro act than just stunts, something more that can be done with bikes, things that can be done in our own communities or one across the world.