Every morning in Galapa, a small town on the outskirts of Barranquilla, Colombia, Jorge Romero walked his 13-year-old daughter Mariangel to school, and every afternoon he accompanied her back home. The four-kilometer trek would be too dangerous for a girl to walk on her own, and the family can’t afford other means of transportation. But walking his daughter to school meant that Romero, a day laborer, sacrificed getting into the labor queue early in the day, missing opportunities to work.
Like many families in Galapa, the Romeros are refugees from Venezuela who spent much of their savings crossing the border two years ago. Mariangel shares the simple two-bedroom home with eight family members. Most of the family sleeps in one bedroom, reserving the other to store their few prized possessions — including the Buffalo Bicycle that Mariangel recently received from World Bicycle Relief (WBR), a Chicago-based nonprofit that shared Mariangel’s story with Reasons to be Cheerful.
“Bicycles are a really overlooked tool for people to access opportunities,” WBR CEO Dave Neiswander says. “There’s a billion people that are challenged to find reliable transportation. Bicycles are a very efficient way for them to help themselves, which is what intrigued me from the beginning.”
Despite the high hopes that families have for their daughters’ futures in many communities in Colombia, barriers often stand in the way of girls’ education. Before making the long trek to school, many girls must complete chores and take care of younger siblings, sacrificing time spent on schoolwork. But with a bicycle, they can save hours of time, arrive at school safely and have more energy to learn.
“In development, we talk about last-mile supply chain,” Neiswander states via Zoom from his field office in Zambia, wearing a black shirt with the slogan Pedal to Empower. “How do you get vaccines out? How do you distribute mosquito nets? How do you actually empower people to reach those distances?”
Other nonprofits donate bicycles, too, but WBR has focused on the bikes as the primary method to bring education, health care and jobs to poor regions. Since its inception in 2005, WBR has given away more than 635,000 bicycles, mostly in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Kenya and Malawi, but also in Colombia and Sri Lanka. Crucially, the gift comes with a contract. “We work with the entire community, the local school, the churches, the community leaders,” Neiswander says. “We do a need assessment and create a bicycle supervisory committee with members from the community. Who receives a bicycle gets posted on a public board, so it’s very transparent. When we give a girl a bicycle, we expect her to use it to go to school for at least two years.”
WBR has implemented a rather rigorous impact assessment: How many more patients is a healthcare worker able to see because they have a bicycle? The answer: 88 percent. How does school attendance increase? The group’s Wheels of Change study followed 2,471 girls from 100 primary schools in three districts in Zambia and found that absenteeism decreased by 28 percent, dropout rates decreased by 19 percent and punctuality increased by 66 percent.
In addition to their charitable arm, which provides bicycles to students and healthcare workers through study-to-own and work-to-own programs, WBR also runs a social enterprise that allows workers to purchase the sturdy bicycles at cost and pay them off in small increments. “It happened because after we started, we got so many requests from people who wanted to buy one. We didn’t want to run a sales shop, but we wanted to help people,” Neiswander explains. “So we started a social enterprise that is 100 percent owned by WBR.”
The bicycles help dairy farmers deliver their milk to their clients, doctors to see their patients in rural areas and farmers to carry their produce to the market. WBR cooperates with organizations such as UNICEF, which bought 20,000 bicycles from them for its agricultural program. Studies in Africa have shown that a bicycle can increase a family’s income by as much as 35 percent.
WBR was founded in 2005 by F.K. Day, a co-founder of the Chicago-based company SRAM, one of the world’s largest makers of bicycle parts, and Leah Missbach Day, a documentary filmmaker, as an emergency response to provide transportation after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Next, the Days wanted to address the HIV/AIDS crisis in Zambia by providing bicycles to health workers and vulnerable households, but sturdy bikes that withstood the rugged dirt roads were hard to find there. “We affectionately called them bicycle-shaped objects,” Neiswander remembers with a laugh. “When we put them through our testing protocols they just fell apart, pedals snapped off, the brakes never worked. We were like, whoa, we can’t in good conscience give 23,000 bicycles to health care workers in a HIV/AIDS program if the bicycles don’t serve their needs.”
So WBR’s engineers designed the sturdy “Buffalo Bicycle.” It weighs 50 pounds, costs about $165 and can support up to 220 pounds. It has no light, but it rarely breaks down, features reliable all-weather coaster brakes, is built for long distances on bumpy terrain, and can easily be repaired. WBR also trained more than 2,300 mechanics who now work at 60 bicycle repair shops as part of WBR’s social enterprise arm, thus creating jobs.
Neiswander acknowledges that implementing the programs came with a learning curve. “We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning.” For him, working with the locals, including teachers and health workers, is crucial to determine the most pressing transportation needs in the area and provide accountability. For instance, a family recently claimed a bike had been stolen while the community thought they had sold it for profit. No definitive conclusion was reached, but Neiswander believes this shows why the village committees are important so that residents hold each other accountable. For example, a girl who does not go to school after receiving a bike will need to return the bike.
Neiswander had worked as an investment banker for 15 years and met the Days on safari in Kenya in 2007. Their idea sounded so convincing that he gave his notice six weeks later and moved to Zambia to set up WBR’s operation in Africa. “Best decision of my life,” the jovial CEO says with a wide smile. His enthusiasm shines through his passionate pitch for why bicycles create an “ecosystem of mobility” in these communities.
Mariangel has big dreams for herself and her family, too. She hopes to one day move to the United States and study music, dance and guitar. In the meantime, her Buffalo Bicycle is helping her attain the education that could get her there.
“Especially in girls’ education, where girls are walking 10 or 15 kilometers to get to school, having a bicycle can be a game changer,” says Neiswander, “and that really is a key to break the cycles of poverty and disease in developing regions around the world.”