For the past four years It has been the mission of my good friend adventure travel icon Dan Austin (founder of award-winning Austin Adventures) to help alleviate the ‘cycle’ of poverty facing the people of rural Africa through increased mobility and economic development. Along with a group of entrepreneurs that shared a common passion for helping those who need it the most, Austin launched the Wheels of Change (WOC) non-profit in 2010 to bring donated cycles to the continent. On August 7, 2013, the latest shipment of more than 300 bikes, parts and tools arrived at its final destination in Linyanti, Namibia.
Throughout the U.S., Wheels of Change International collects donated cycles to be shipped overseas to Africa. Upon arrival, locals are trained in both bicycle mechanics and how to run a business. The shipping container is then converted into a bike shop that retails, services and rents cycles at a subsidized cost with 100% all profits going back into the community.
The latest container of bikes arrived in Linyanti village in August and will serve the Zambezi Region of northeast Namibia. Here, no public transport is available and, owing to low incomes, private motor vehicle ownership is impossible for most people. The population of the region survives mainly on subsistence farming and fishing, so transporting produce is a major requirement. For children, getting to school can be a daily challenge, especially if they live more than a few kilometers from school. In this case, transport can mean the difference between having an education and a brighter future, or continuing a cycle of poverty. For people who need to visit medical facilities, transport can be a big obstacle. For patients who need to access important medication like antiretrovirals that are used to treat HIV/AIDS, walking can be a major energy drain, while hitching a lift can take hours or even days and can be costly. A cycle can be a perfect solution for a patient in this situation.
Economic development is also part of the Wheels of Change mission. The shipment to Linyanti will also benefit two conservancy-based bicycle tourism projects that will be launched using the new cycles. The first is in the Wuparu Conservancy, about 50km from the cycle shop, and the other is located on the other side of Namibia in the Kunene region, in Khoadi Hoas Conservancy. Namibia’s conservancy model is world-renowned for giving local people ownership over important tourism sites as a way to earn money to build their communities. For example, high end lodges must pay rent to the conservancy in order to operate there, and conservancy-led tourism ventures are supported by these lodges.
There will be 15 cycles from the shipment allocated to safari camps in each of these conservancies. The cycles will be owned by the conservancies, but individual conservancy members will be given an opportunity to run tour businesses, taking tourists to visit local attractions and real villages—a rare privilege on Namibia’s current tourism circuits, which are geared mainly to visiting the country’s spectacular wildlife and landscapes, but with limited opportunities to experience the way-of-life of local people.
Under Austin’s leadership, Wheels of Change continues to expand its efforts in Africa. WOC’s first Namibian project—Tuliwonde Bicycle Shop—continues to be very successful and has grown beyond the borders of Namibia. As it sits near the border with Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, it has developed markets in these countries. Since it opened in late 2010, it has sold more than 1000 cycles, with profits supporting local orphans who are fed and clothed through a highly regarded local organization, Catholic AIDS Action.
In 2011, WOC delivered a shipment of 400 bikes to a village outside of Nairobi, Kenya which now operates as a successful Bicycle Empowerment Center serving thousands of people.
The Tuliwonde, Nairobi and now Linyanti bike shops are all part of a network of 31 locations supported by the Namibian NGO, the Bicycling Empowerment Network Namibia (aka BEN). BEN Namibia’s network of shops has created a large demand for bikes throughout the country. Last year the NGO in association with Wheels of Change International and other initiatives imported 6,276 bicycles into Namibia, and with this year’s imports to date, they have brought the total number of cycles donated to 32,706 since the Network’s inception in 2005.
“When a bicycle is donated, the possibilities are endless and the math becomes simple,” explains Austin. “In the hands of a healthcare worker, they can cover four times the ground than otherwise on foot. This translates into four times the number of patient visits and four times the number of medication disbursements. Wheels of Change helps fulfill a basic need, to provide a distribution vehicle for improved healthcare for those too remote from formalized healthcare facilities. But it doesn’t stop there.”
Austin points out that a healthcare worker can visit 3 to 4 times the number of clients with a bicycle compared to walking, girls are 70 percent more likely to attend school if their household owns a bicycle, 5km on foot = 1 hour / 5km by bicycle = 20 minutes, and a cycle can carry up to five times the load compared to a person walking.
A bicycle shop, which meets an important need for transport, can help capitalize other businesses, and give hard-working local people, who have never had a shot at conventional employment, a chance to learn new skills and build a strong local enterprise.
For more inspiration on visiting Namibia, go get lost… recommends
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