Wednesday, 27 June 2012 19:17

Featured Organization - World Bicycle Relief

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Q: World Bicycle Relief is less than 10 years old - what have been some of the "growing pains" the organization has experienced and how have you gotten past those to continue to grow the scope of the program?

A: As World Bicycle Relief has grown, building a team of the highest-quality with real world experience has been critical. We are increasingly hiring people locally based in the market and regions we serve, as opposed to focusing our recruitment efforts on NGO staffed predominantly with foreign volunteers. In doing this we help fuel local economies and create sustainable operations imbedded within the communities we are working in.

We quickly learned that solely building and distributing bicycles was key component to a larger and more comprehensive solution. We are creating an infrastructure, training field mechanics, designing bikes that are compatible even in the bush, and building a supply chain for spare parts. Even in training local field mechanics, we have evolved our methods with experience; initially we focused training bicycle mechanics, but we now understand that providing training in business practice is equally important.

Our excitement about creating specially designed bikes for different clients and regions resulted in too many inventory items: super large frames for men in Southern Sudan, super small frames for young women in Zambia, mid-sized sized frames for healthcare workers in Zimbabwe. We realized that if we designed a frame with the ability to adjust for different riders sizes and genders, we could save a lot of money, simplify our inventory, and help more people. It took some time, and we are very happy with our new mountain bike frame.

Q: What does having a bicycle mean to someone in a rural community? How do they treat it once they have it? Are there risks of a World Bicycle Relief bike being stolen?

A: A bicycle is transformational for individuals without access to mobility in rural communities. For many people in the areas we serve, schools, hospitals, farmland and workplaces span large distances where walking is the primary mode of transportation. The bicycles we provide enable people to spend more time doing work than getting there, to save money on transportation, and to more easily and quickly access healthcare.

To clarify, no World Bicycle Relief bike is ever given away “for free.” While many don’t require cash payments, students are required to earn them through their academic performance over several years. Healthcare workers demonstrate their commitment and need for a bike through their dedication to visiting and treating patients. Our “work to own” model involves a rigid system of benchmarks that must be met, which ensures that people value the bicycles and maintenance them frequently.

World Bicycle Relief supplies toolkits, air pumps and locks with every bike. In reality, the locks are not particularly important; the bicycles are often the most valuable assets for these rural families, and they keep the bikes safely within their homes. If we operated in urban areas it might be different, but theft is not an issue that we have had problems with.

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Q: How did the social enterprise program come about? What have been the biggest challenges in getting that off the ground? What are your expectations for this in the coming years?

A: We started the social enterprise program when we started to get demand from farmers and other organizations to buy our bicycles. It took us some time to build a sales and marketing infrastructure that would meet their needs, but demand is growing steadily. It has truly been demand-led, as there is a hole in the bottom of the “marketplace pyramid” for good quality bicycles.

Our two biggest challenges are working within the infrastructures of these African countries and finding high-quality staff members. The product has been tested and proven, and while it can always be improved upon, it is already the best bicycle offered in the markets where we operate.

We expect World Bicycle Relief to keep growing at rates above 50% per year over the next several years. Sales have increased from 100 bicycles per month a few years ago to over 3,000 bicycles per month today. We are confident that growth will continue to 5,000 and 10,000 bicycles a month. In the medium-term, we plan to develop these operations into profit centers that fund our philanthropic programs.

Q: What type of NGO's and nonprofits are you seeking to connect with? What are the qualifications for them to participate in your bicycle distribution programs?

A: World Bicycle Relief partners with some of the largest organizations (UNICEF, World Vision, CARE), in addition to smaller and locally based groups. Our relationships with local non-profits allow us to create sustainable bicycle infrastructure within these communities for the long-term. These organizations have already been making an impact and can help us to better understand the places and people we serve, as well has help us in facilitating formal measurement and evaluation to ensure we are achieving results. World Bicycle Relief programs tend be large (5,000+ bicycles), but we have also supplied bicycles into small programs for individual orphanages and agricultural programs.

Q: How do you measure and evaluate the effectiveness of providing bicycles to these communities? What are some of your principal findings as to the program’s effectiveness? Have there been any unexpected findings?

A: We hire third parties, including universities and other non-profits, to evaluate World Bicycle Relief programs. A large number of factors are considered. As an example, to effectively evaluate our educational program, grades and attendance are tracked by school and gender for student populations within a large and increasing number of schools.

And it has been truly astounding that a simple bicycle can have such a dramatic impact on individuals and their communities. We expected to see positive results from World Bicycle Relief’s efforts, but we were blown away to learn that bicycles enabled double-digit improvements in grades and attendance. Similarly, in our healthcare program, retention of workers went from about 50% retention per year to approximately 95%. Training and recruitment costs were dramatically reduced for the program, and most importantly, by creating a consistent supply of workers through enabling their mobility, patients did not fall off of their treatment and drug regiments when healthcare workers quit.

Q: What bicycle design considerations are important for the areas you serve: Frame, wheels, tires, chain, storage and baskets? How has the design of your bicycle evolved?

A: World Bicycle Relief has entirely redesigned and manufactured the bicycles to serve people and communities in rural and geographically demanding areas. We are building locally compatible and incredibly durable bikes with strong parts. These bikes are built to last for years. Road conditions rougher than the toughest mountain bike conditions in the U.S., and the bikes are used for enabling peoples livelihood, not sport, so it is critical that they can handle the rain, the mud, and the rocky terrain. They are also built to support serious loads; the rear rack carrying capacity alone is 100kg!

Q: How does your local assembly/manufacturing process work?

A: World Bicycle Relief assembles bicycles locally in Africa at four facilities -- Lusaka, Zambia; Pietermaritzburg, South Africa; Harare, Zimbabwe; and Kisumu, Kenya. We believe in local assembly and employ approximately 40+ full-time assemblers in Africa today. We ship all of the bicycle components from Asia (approx. 800 bicycles per container) and then assemble them locally. Long-term we hope to manufacture some parts in Africa, particularly the fork, frame, and carrier rack, but today we buy all of our parts in Asia from high quality suppliers.

Q: What are the things you look for in setting up that system in a developing part of the world?

A: World Bicycle Relief looks for good transportation links in areas where our development programs can be most effective. We look for countries where the bikes can make the largest impact. We select places where we can build sustainable infrastructures for the bicycles. World Bicycle Relief is working to build a long-term model, not a short-term fundraising machine.

Q: You operate a broad range of programs around the world – some of which have been the most difficult to establish and maintain. What have you done to overcome those obstacles? Has the impact of any program exceeded your expectations?

A: Establishing and maintaining our programs has been harder than we could have imagined, and yet the impact we have seen through World Bicycle Relief has exceed all expectation. Africa is a tough continent with a diverse range of challenges. Poor infrastructure and bureaucratic governments have kept us from growing at the pace we anticipated, but we are advancing steadily, and every day we see how a simple bike changes lives and strengthens communities.

Q: It looks like WBR has great support from within the bike industry, certainly in large part due to SRAM’s involvement from the onset. What has that industry support meant beyond getting product and parts? Has there been marketing/PR support or other ways your corporate partners are helping to World Bicycle Relief’s mission?

A: The bicycle and cycling industry has really united in its efforts to support World Bicycle Relief, and the support has been fundamental to our growth. SRAM has been instrumental to the organization, as our first and largest corporate sponsor to date, and nearly all of the big players including Trek and Specialized have supported us in variety of ways, from funding to advocacy and networking. Our partnership community continues to expand with fantastic companies that donate a portion of their sales to World Bicycle Relief, allowing people to support our cause by purchasing Jedidiah clothing at locations like Nordstrom’s, Theo chocolates at a local book shop, and Saris bicycle racks for cars.

Q: What can bike enthusiasts do to get involved and support your efforts?

A: You can go to the World Bicycle Relief website where you can supply a bike to a student in need, train a field mechanic or supply her with tools, and mobilize a group of healthcare workers.

You can join us in one of our rides; we do them all over the country, and you can even ride with us in Africa.

You can join the conversation and share your stories. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

If you’re an athlete, you can join Team World Bicycle Relief and support us with fellow members like 2010 Ironman World Campion Mirinda Carfrae and Olympic cyclist Chris Horner.

There are plenty of ways to contribute and advocate for World Bicycle Relief, to help provide people in need with access to independence and livelihood through The Power of Bicycles®. Learn more at


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