On an unusually cold and windy day in SoCal, I cozied up to paperwork. It wasn’t the best day for taking a ride, so I decided to tackle my stack of charitable organization literature. The pile had increased significantly towards the end of last year, with no end to the causes I care about. From the survival of Mother Earth to the suffering of animals and humans, the jumble of solicitations was now spilling out of a very large shoebox. Even supporting Wikipedia and my favorite music stations and concert venues had become yet another set of requests. At least those just filled up my email Inbox. How would I narrow down the flood of worthy causes and requests without becoming an isolationist, first-world Scrooge?
Keep it Simple
After I procrastinated a bit by giving my bike a good cleaning, I got back to my task. Categorizing organizations by type, with a plan to select only one from each group, seemed like a good way to start. In reviewing two of my “human” favorites (Women to Women International and World Vision), I noticed that contributors have the option of buying a bicycle for someone needing basic transportation. I had just re-read the #126 issue of BICYCLIST which had an ad for World Bicycle Relief and it occurred to me that this organization might be the solution to my dilemma. I looked into it.
World Bicycle Relief
Founded in 2005 by an executive of a U.S. bicycle parts company, World Bicycle Relief is dedicated to mobilizing people by using specially-designed bicycles that can withstand the challenging terrain and conditions in rural, developing areas. An international, non-profit organization based in Chicago, it specializes in large-scale, comprehensive distribution programs to aid poverty relief with a focus primarily on education, economic development, and health care. Initially, bikes were made in the U.S. and shipped to other countries, but the environmental challenges prevented this from being sustainable. After consulting with local people and locating spare parts in remote areas, the WBR engineering staff designed a 55-pound, one-speed bicycle that could sustain tough environments. Locally assembled, these rugged bicycles are especially useful for women who use them to take children to clinics and transport food from markets. Educational programs have been set up by WBR to increase school attendance by contracting with student recipients, and 70 percent are girls. All WBR programs are designed to be efficient. For every 50 bicycles distributed, one mechanic is trained and equipped with basic spare parts and tools; this also nurtures a small business. With simple, sustainable bicycle transportation, an individual’s access to economic opportunity increases.
Local Demand, A Global Bike
Local demand inspired WBR to launch their social enterprise, Buffalo Bicycles Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary. By selling bicycles, spare parts, and mechanics training, Buffalo Bicycles helps reduce overall program expenses, more than they could through donations alone. Shared costs, such as shipping, assembly and facility space, are spread over a larger number of bicycles. Most customers are non-profit organizations that use the bicycles to improve efficiency in their respective programs, thus providing more people with affordable, reliable transportation. Transporting heavy, bulky loads over long distances by farmers, entrepreneurs and health care workers, requires a robust bicycle engineered to withstand harsh conditions. The technology has been tested in punishing field conditions and ongoing feedback is used to improve the bicycles. Design innovations are made compatible with locally available spare parts, ensuring that, with proper maintenance, the bicycles will remain durable for years. Each bike comes with a small toolkit and a pump for basic maintenance, but WBR has developed a Field Mechanics Training Program that accompanies distribution. Each trained mechanic receives a bike, a set of high quality tools, a uniform, and basic marketing materials. Some mechanics work with micro-lenders to establish businesses and purchase a stock of spare parts .
Facts and Figures
With six assembly facilities and 285,488 bikes in the field, WBR provides sustainable transportation to the global community and promotes its mission through its Power of Bicycles program. A registered 501c3 organization, WBR is funded through a combination of donations and earned income from its social enterprise program; 73% of donations directly fund the bicycle program. Expenses include bike purchases, shipping, assembly and distribution as well as mechanics training, recipient selection, community education, and program monitoring. With over 100 employees in eight countries around the world working in everything from bicycle assembly to donor acknowledgment, this organization is changing the world one bicycle at a time.
Riding into the New Year
Clouds were moving swiftly across the sky as I moved aside the envelopes on my desk. Learning about WBR made me think a bit more about the bicycle as truly an “engine for economic and cultural empowerment.” Non-polluting and rarely dangerous to living things, this simple machine provides something more than sport, recreation or exercise. For many in the world, it fulfills a utilitarian purpose and is especially useful for girls who may otherwise be forced to drop out of school because they live too far away or risk dangers such as violence or kidnapping on their walking route. Safe and speedy transportation helps not only eager students, but adult women who use this ingenious invention of the modern world to help themselves earn more money.
With a bicycle, women can travel four times further in the same amount of time and carry five times more goods than they could on foot. For many, riding pleasure is connected to survival.
Selecting whether or how to “give back” is personal. Some choose not to share their good fortune. Others are not able to. Most of my life, I have tried to support causes, but not necessarily as actively or financially as I am able to now. Whether altruism exists may be debated, and I don’t consider myself the most generous person anyway, but I’ve found that delaying the purchase of another bike accessory so I can make contributions is a way for me to connect to the better part of this world — and myself. And I’ve learned that it’s not the amount as much as the act of sharing that forms connection. In the end, I decided to write a new check, to World Bicycle Relief. (Actually, I went online to worldbikerelief.org to make my donation.)
So, I begin 2016 knowing that, even on those cold and windy days when I may not be on the road, our shared sun may be shining on a new member of the cycling community.
Visit www.worldbicyclerelief.com to make a donation.