West Loop residents bringing two-wheeled revolution to Africa

Changing lives, one bike at a time

11/09/2011 10:00 PM


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June Kirchgatter works on building a bike with World Bicycle Relief mechanic George Mwanza.
Photos courtesy June Kirchgatter

One hot, sunny day last month — like so many others in Zambia — was unforgettable for Memory.

As West Looper June Kirchgatter stood before a crowd of villagers and fellow Americans, the young African girl’s mother stopped the ceremony and began to sing and dance.

“Memory’s mom, it was like she was on Oprah. The whole thing stops. She’s got a song she’s got to sing,” Kirchgatter recalled. “She made it a super-big deal.”

But Kirchgatter didn’t elicit this reaction by handing over cash or food, or by building a school.

It was a bicycle.

But not just any bicycle. Memory’s was one of 100 super-durable and utilitarian bikes given out in that small Zambian town by the team from World Bicycle Relief. Their goal is to change the lives of impoverished people living in sub-Saharan Africa by making it easier to get to school, give out HIV and AIDS care, and stimulate local commerce.

They say it’s all possible with a bike. In impoverished rural areas of Africa where the primary means of transportation is feet, the speed, flexibility and cargo-carrying capacity offered by bikes is transformative.

The organization was founded in 2005 by Kirchgatter’s neighbor, West Loop resident F.K. Day, who lives in the 1000 W. Washington building. As the cofounder of global bike part manufacturer SRAM, he’s been working on making better bike parts since 1987.

When the massive Indian Ocean tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, Day said he was looking for a way to help, and he reached out to various aid groups stateside offering what he knew best: bikes.

But organization after organization turned him down, saying they didn’t want his wheels — only cash.

“I started calling around to all the relief organizations in the U.S., you know, the Red Cross, Save the Children,” Day recalled. “I said, ‘What would you guys think if I did a large-scale bicycle program? And they said, ‘No, no, no, just send money.’”

Undeterred, Day flew to Sri Lanka with his wife Leah Missbach-Day, a professional photographer, and started reaching out to aid workers on the ground. There, he got a very different response — enthusiastic aid workers convinced him it wasn’t just something they wanted, it was something that was badly needed.

Soon after, though, an aid worker brought to Day’s attention that as much as tsunami victims needed the help, there was another part of the world — impoverished Africans besieged by HIV/AIDS and poverty — that needed them even more.

So they partnered with the international charity World Vision and started delivering bikes to AIDS workers who had been walking from appointment to appointment in rural Africa. The results were dramatic. Volunteer workers, who frequently burn out from the demands of long treks across the countryside each day and also caring for their families and themselves, found that a bike caused a quantum leap in efficiency.

“Basically, we mobilized their army of trained volunteers,” Day said. “The retention rate of volunteers went up to over 90 percent where it had been down around 50 percent.”

Soon, World Bicycle Relief decided to branch out on its own. Today, they’re focusing on getting bikes to one of the most promising groups in Africa: children. By giving bikes to kids who spend 2-4 hours walking across country, to and from school every day, World Bicycle Relief increases the amount of time they spend being productive. And 75 percent of the bikes go to girls (and a few to teachers as well).

The bike itself is a bit of a marvel. While Day took his expertise from SRAM to build the first bikes, he quickly realized their traditional two-wheelers wouldn’t hold up on the rough, potholed dirt roads of Africa.

“[At that time] we didn’t make anything that could survive in Africa,” Day said. “We can make stuff for the Tour de France, but that’s nothing like those rough country roads.”

So over the past six years, World Bicycle Relief has developed a bike that’s built like a tank — oversized steel for durability and wheels that have extra-thick spokes to prevent bending. It weighs 50 pounds and can carry 220 pounds of cargo.

That enormous capacity targets the last of their three objectives: economic stimulus. While each bike given to a kid has been funded through a donation ($134 each), many local businessmen in the countryside saw their utility and clamored for the bikes as well. So now World Bicycle Relief sells them the bikes for $155, allowing farmers to bring more product to market or get their employees to work faster.

The organization is making an impact, Day said. Their goal is to distribute 50,000 bikes to school kids in the countryside, and they’re about a third of the way to that goal.

They need donations, though, and one way of drumming up support is by organizing trips to Zambia to see the operation on the ground.

That’s what Kirchgatter did last month. On her 11-day trip, she had the opportunity to assemble a bike with the help of one of World Bicycle Relief’s local mechanics, and rode it around the Zambian countryside to see the results.

Kirchgatter admits she rode no more than 5 miles, total, on the rough Zambian roads, but it was enough to get a feel for how much a bike can change locals’ lives.

“That was one thing that really struck me, visiting the people in the village: how people with so few resources can be so resourceful,” she said.

Now that she’s back, Kirchgatter’s enthusiasm for the program has been reinvigorated. Though she said she’s given about $5,000 to the group since first learning of it from her neighbor Day around the time of its inception five or six years ago, she’s planning on doing more in the future. Already, she’s organizing a fundraiser in Ann Arbor with a woman took the trip with her.

All in all, she said, the journey was fun, but it changed the way she looks at the world, too.

“I like to go on nice vacations, but this was a way to see a totally different part of the world that I probably otherwise would not have seen except for a trip like this,” Kirchgatter said. “In some respects, it was probably life-changing.”

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By S. Martha Graham from Warrenville, IL
Posted: 11/19/2011 1:02 PM

I am thrilled to read about this program. It is nice that older people like Ms.Kirchgatter are able to travel like this. I want to become involved, too