FITNESS & SPORT
By: Erica Zora Wrightson
Photos: Brooke Slezak
When Frederick “FK” Day is asked how he arrived at the bicycle as an international development tool, the founder and president of the nonprofit organization World Bicycle Relief (WBR) says it was a natural choice: “It seemed so obvious that a bicycle was an agent of change that I can hardly remember the genesis of the idea.” That’s probably because bikes have been a symbol of freedom and progress for Day since childhood. Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Day bought his first bike for $5 from an older neighbor and spent much of his free time as a kid popping wheelies and jumping that bike into Lake St. Clair. The Motor City and its busy suburbs were not conducive to riding in the streets, but Day would ride to camp in the summer and sometimes to school, a fairly long distance from home over dangerous roads.
“I will never forget the electrifying feeling of freedom as I parked my bike and walked into camp or school, continually looking over my shoulder at the bike and imagining what I could do with it,” he recalls. In 1987, that enthusiasm carried Day, his brother, and a couple of friends to start the bicycle component manufacturer SRAM Corporation. The largest bicycle component supplier in the U.S. and the second largest in the world, SRAM operates out of facilities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
In 2004, Day and his wife, Leah, wanted to provide support for the Indian Ocean countries devastated by the tsunami. They flew to Sri Lanka, where they interviewed communities and relief organizations to assess their needs. After helping a community of cycling companies donate 24,000 bikes to the recovery effort, they were invigorated by the impact that such a simple tool could make on communities in need, and they decided to expand the bike program into Africa.
“It is really an advantage to have a [WBR] bicycle because a lot of bicycles break down very easily. But not these ones,” says George, a chicken farmer in Zambia who tells his story in a video on the WBR website. The Buffalo bicycle, WBR’s signature bike, is built to carry 100 kg of cargo in addition to the rider. It has an extended wheelbase, a heavy-duty frame and carrier, and strong wheels. “They carry a lot more than ordinary bicycles,” says George. “At times you pity the bicycle!”
That durability doesn’t come easily. Andrew Hall, Global Product Manager for WBR, oversees field testing in Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, where 25 test riders use their bicycles professionally, carrying either heavy loads or transporting passengers. WBR employees are constantly learning about the bikes from their users and refining the design in response to their needs. The organization’s internal motto, “all answers are found in the field,” speaks to the humility and open-mindedness of its leaders.
“Keeping focused on the needs of the people we are trying to serve was the big lesson for me,” says Andy Samways, Engineering Manager at SRAM, and an instrumental player in the bike development for WBR. As a result, WBR isn’t concerned with American bicycle trends—lightweight, fast, and sexy—but is committed to producing a durable and sustainable vehicle based on the demands of the land and its commuters.
Kisumu, where most field testing takes place, is an ideal testing ground because of its mix of long hills, plains, dusty and muddy areas, tarmac roads, potholes, and country paths. And the Buffalo bike has matured significantly since the first generation. The saddle material was upgraded to withstand relentless sun. The bike’s kickstand was strengthened to support heavy loads, and its bottom bracket was upgraded to seal out heavy mud and dust.
Single-speed, it utilizes a coaster brake, which is actuated by simply pedaling backwards, which makes them more durable than the kind you see in Europe or the States.
It’s Hall who ensures that the bike is not only physically fit for its environment but that its price remains accessible for their target customer. Buffalo bikes retail for around $180 because anything higher would be out of reach. But it’s up to Hall, Day and others to make sure that investment works for the people who buy them.
This attention to design and price point has very real consequences in people’s lives. Charity is a 27-year-old woman who traveled 80 miles to the capitol city of Harare to buy a Buffalo bicycle. A single mother of two, she was determined to get her kids to college. She figured out that she could make more money selling vegetables if she biked to market instead of paying to ride the bus. A $60 bike she bought fell apart within a month, so she decided to save up for the same sturdy bike her neighbor owned. “When an individual whose only mode of transportation is walking finally gains access to a reliable bicycle, amazing things happen to them, their family and their community,” Day says.
Another recipient of a Buffalo bicycle is a caregiver named Royce. “I used to wake up before dawn to do my household chores. Then I could only visit 2 patients nearby, and one on the other side of the road,” she says in her video about life before she had a WBR bike. In fact, most of Buffalo’s customers are nonprofits who use the bikes to improve efficiency in their healthcare programs, like STEPS OVC, a USAID-funded program that cares for Zambian children affected by HIV/AIDS and purchases bicycles to help volunteer caregivers visit children at home and transport them to the clinic. “Visiting clients by bicycle is much faster than doing so by foot. I used to only be able to visit three patients a day; now I can visit all 18 patients in one day.”
However, it’s not just about providing bikes—it’s about creating a sustainable cycle of service around the Buffalo. Employees design, source, and manufacture durable bicycles engineered especially for rural terrain and load requirements. Certified service workers assemble bikes locally with the necessary tools and deliver them through purchases, work-to-own, and study-to-own programs. Bikes are distributed through philanthropic programs in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. The bikes are also sold via a wholly-owned subsidiary, Buffalo Bicycle, and through nonprofit and consumer channels that include dealer networks, walk-ins, and micro-financing.
“We had to wake up very early to do chores and still arrive at school on time,” says a 15-year-old girl named Ethel in her video. “We never had time to study and always arrived home from school late.” She wants to become a nurse but the two-hour walk to school was prohibitive. One of WBR’s many goals is to defeat a major barrier that keeps students in developing countries from advancing academically: transportation to school. After receiving a Buffalo bicycle in 2013, Ethel’s circumstances changed in many ways. “Now I would have time to study, travel comfortably to school and still help with chores,” she says. “This bicycle has changed my life. I am no longer worried about getting tired and traveling long distances. I go by bicycle to the mill to grind corn. I go by bicycle to school.”
“I see my job as important. When I fix people’s bicycles, they appreciate my service,” says Alex, a WBR- trained field mechanic. Bringing the program full circle, the organization developed a Field Mechanics Training Program in concert with its distribution efforts to ensure that bicycle owners have access to local qualified maintenance and repair services. Each trained mechanic receives a bicycle, a set of high-quality bicycle tools, a uniform, and marketing materials; some mechanics work with microlenders to establish businesses and purchase a stock of spare parts. “With my earnings as a mechanic, I was able to purchase a solar panel, a radio and an inverter,” he says. “I was also able to send my kids to school.”
By providing bicycles for students, healthcare workers, and communities, WBR equips them with a powerful tool that they may use to change the world in their own way. “Our legacy will be enabling individuals to rewrite their future where their lives were changed by their access to transportation provided by a reliable bicycle,” says Day. “This could be a healthcare worker visiting patients, or an entrepreneur building their business and markets, but maybe most profoundly, the school girl who is able to stay in school and graduate and bring hope and possibility to herself, family and community. This is the shining star of hope.”