Last summer, 200 bicycles landed in Botswana destined for free distribution to home health care workers treating HIV/AIDS patients in remote rural areas. It was a donation from Kona Biketown Africa -- a partnership between Bicycling magazine's Biketown program, Kona Bicycle Company, and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation (BMS). Kona Biketown emerged from Bicycling's original Biketown program for giving away free bikes to people in the US in order to promote cycling. With their Africa program, they brought together Kona bike designers who could develop a locally-appropriate bicycle for the rough terrain of the backcountry, as well as the power of a large philanthropic organization like BMS to get the program moving.
Kona's Design Group, normally employed in the design of world cup racing caliber bikes, teamed with African experts and other bicycle industry manufacturers in the research and design of the AfricaBike. The result was a simple, durable, comfortable and effective means of transportation that could handle all of the unique social and environmental challenges Africa presents.
The bikes revolutionized the home health care workers' productivity and effectiveness, enabling them to multiply the number of patients they could see in a single day by five or six. But although the bike design had been developed in collaboration with locals, there were some crucial miscalculations that thwarted the health care workers' initial progress, sending them back to their original, severely limited capacity for visits, and preventing an unthinkable number of people from getting the anti-retroviral treatment they needed.
The flaws in the program were discovered by journalist Mark Jenkins, who went to Botswana on assignment for Bicycling Magazine, planning to report on the resounding success of Kona Biketown, and coming up short of a victory:
I had high hopes. Botswana is the most politically stable country in Africa, having had a functioning democracy since it gained independence in 1966. It is also, according to the watchdog group Transparency International, the least corrupt nation in Africa, and has one of the continent's highest per capita incomes: $11,200 a year. I wanted to write a story about how inevitable it is that bicycles transform societies when given a chance. Given all my time in Africa, I should have known better.
What Jenkins found were piles of donated bikes hidden away in trailers or containers, with flat tires and crushed baskets and enough dust to guarantee they'd been long abandoned. As he went around asking what had happened, he received several answers: 1.) that the huge thorns had punctured the tires of all the bikes (which had been heavily and successfully used for the first few months) and that the pumps and patchkits that had come with the bikes had gone missing, and 2.) Home Based Care, the agency that was meant to employ, oversee, and support the healthcare workers, had been misusing their authority, rendering the bikes inaccessible by virtue of a string of unnecessary rules to make it more complicated and time-consuming to retrieve and return the bikes than it was to just walk.
I kept thinking about all those beautiful bikes locked up in that container. bicycling, BMS and Kona had started the Africa project in the spirit of stateside BikeTowns--with no expectations, no micromanaging. You go somewhere, give away bikes, lead a few maintenance classes, distribute spare tubes, patch kits and pumps, and leave the lucky recipients alone to see what happens. A noble and fascinating experiment. But it was all wrong for Africa.
But while he found many of the healthcare workers discouraged by the short lifespan of the bike system, he found enough remaining enthusiasm and desire to make it work that he decided to engage with community members to revive Biketown. First, triage: he repaired the flat tires and broke the captive bikes out of the locked container at Home Based Care. Next, preparedness: he arranged for a local friend with some good mechanical skills to go to a bike repair training program in Namibia. Finally, repair, redistribution and maintenance training. All 200 bikes were given away again, and the first trained bike mechanic in the area started maintenance clinics to teach the new bike owners how to take care of their vehicles.
Having finally achieved the success they imagined, Kona Biketown has made its next move, preparing to deliver free bikes in Namibia. A few days ago they secured support for the transportation and warehousing logistics involved in the new initiative and they will give away 150 bikes in early August. In addition, Kona launched a two-for-one program where for every two bikes they sell worldwide, they will donate a free one to Biketown. "To Kona's delight, the same design elements that make the AfricaBike an efficient means of delivering medicine in Botswana, also make it attractive to urban commuters as they search for reliable, affordable transportation alternatives." It closes the loop, in effect, allowing paying customers to support access for those without sufficient funds through the same product. The number of patients getting the treatment they need is once again on the rise.
Punctures caused by the numerous, large thorns is a big problem in Africa. Why not use puncture-proof tires? There are several brands on the market, e.g. http://www.greentyre.com/
Bike programmes like this can be incredibly empowering, but they have to work with local NGOs or they are bound to fail. I get tired of hearing about first-world attempts to donate things to people who have less, without doing the groundwork first. Even governments in developing countries don't understand the challenges: Botswana's neighbour, South Africa, is still trying to give away a million bikes, despite past failures.
But there have been successes, like the Qhubeka bicycle project in South Africa, which is run by a partnership between an NGO and a company that requires its employees to do community service. Although it is not explained in this brief article, Qhubeka has developed a programme that involves support systems for communities to learn to ride, repair, and value the bikes. There are issues that outsiders might not consider; for example, in patriarchal societies, empowering women by providing them with a means of transportation (bicycles) can cause tensions in rural communities. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be empowered, it means the repercussions need to be addressed.
I have worked in Botswana, and I live in South Africa. I know that there is a lot that can be done, but let's not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Expert bike mechanic Sheldon Brown puts it better than I can:
"Airless tires have been obsolete for over a century, but crackpot "inventors" keep trying to bring them back. They are heavy and slow. They give a harsh ride and poor high-speed cornering on rough surfaces. They are also likely to cause wheel damage, due to their poor cushioning ability. A pneumatic tire uses all of the air in the whole tube as a shock absorber, while foam-type "airless" tires/tubes only use the air in the immediate area of impact."
I'll note that wheel damage is much more difficult and expensive to repair than a flat. In Africa it's particuarly important to minimize the need for spare parts and it's much easier to simply replace a tube than a wheel or spoke.
Regarding the tires, the AfricaBikes given away were equipped were "puncture proof" tires (partially made of Kevlar). They seemed to have lasted a while before finally giving in to the many large "Jesus thorns" that are all about. More spares and patch kits will be left behind for the 2007 Namibia project.
Also, new for the 2007 visit to Namibia, the BikeTown Africa project has enlisted the help of a couple of Africa-based, bicycle-related NGO's to oversee maintenance after the bicycles are distributed.