If you’ve been reading the print and online editions of Bicycling Trade for a while, you may have seen one or more of our past articles about World Bicycle Relief.
This is not a charity that takes second hand bicycles from well-meaning donors and ships them to third world countries.
Instead, World Bicycle Relief designs ‘bulletproof’ high quality but low tech, all steel bicycles from the ground up. They set up assembly factories on the ground within the recipient countries, ship the components completely ‘knocked down’, 900+ bikes to a container and build the bikes using local workers that they train and employ.
World Bicycle Relief does not then randomly give bicycles away, but forms partnerships with experienced organisations within each country. They sell some bikes at full retail through their Buffalo Bikes commercial arm, with all financial benefits including economies of scale flowing back to World Bicycle Relief. They sell other bikes through favourable microfinance loans.
Then there’s many thousands of bicycles that are donated to recipients. Many of these are teenage schoolgirls who would otherwise have to walk for hours each week to get to school and back. This program is called the Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program (BEEP).
It’s difficult for any of us reading this in a first world country to comprehend what a life changing difference that giving a bicycle to a schoolgirl can make. More years at school equal better employment opportunities, later marriage, lower incidence of AIDS and a range of other positive outcomes. This is why World Bicycle Relief is also so diligent in gathering statistics about the effectiveness of their programs.
Australians will soon have an opportunity to get involved with World Bicycle Relief at a local level. You can read more about this at the end of this article.
At the recent Taipei Cycle, Bicycling Trade caught up with World Bicycle Relief’s co-founder, F.K. Day, who is known simply as ‘FK’ and is from Chicago, USA.
Bicycling Trade: In total, how many bikes are you now making and distributing via all methods and countries?
F.K. Day: We did 55,000 bikes in 2014 and we’ll probably do 70,000 this year.
BT: What are the latest developments that are contributing to this rapid growth?
FK: The most exciting things that are happening is what’s going on out in the field. Right now we have a 75,000 bike BEEP program starting in Zimbabwe.
World Vision Switzerland, World Vision Zimbabwe and World Bicycle Relief have partnered up to do this program. It’s going to be linked with another program World Vision is doing in Zimbabwe which is all about girls and school and helping them progress through school and supporting them to do that.
We have all this data about what a bike can do so they said, ‘Fantastic, if you can commit a third to it then World Vision Switzerland will do a third and then the World Vision Zimbabwe will do a third.’ It really works great.
The thing I love so much about this is that it’s a three year program and we’re going to be able to do a ton of measuring and evaluation after this to determine how effective bikes are as part of a larger program.
My feeling is that they will get the same attendance and performance results at half the cost with a bicycle than they would through any other strategy. I’m not telling them that, but I think that’s what the data is going to reveal.
For example, I think the overall program is about US$35 million (Aus $46 million), and that’s aside from the bikes. The World Bicycle Relief side is probably under US$10 million (Aus $13.1 million) for bikes and training. It’s my belief the US$35 million that is going into all this other stuff might be better spent if you just did bicycles and you could do four times as many bikes.
The other programs, like hygiene training, mentorship and others are all very good and worthy, but what’s the highest ROI? (return on investment). The big battle is what’s most cost effective. So we’re really going to get a chance to see cost effectiveness right there in the field. What gets the girl through school in a real positive way? Because if we can keep them in school, great things happen.
BT: Last time we spoke, you were talking about major corporations who are also starting to get involved.
FK: We’re seeing an increase in corporate sponsorships of large scale programs. A large soft drink manufacturer in Colombia (South America) did a bunch of research, found us and called us up and said they wanted to replicate the BEEP program in Colombia.
We thought they were just ‘kicking tyres’ and wouldn’t really do this. These guys called us last year, studied it, hired people and we just delivered our first 1,000 bikes about a month ago and they’ve already signed on I think for 2,000 to 3,000 more bikes this year. They want to bring it up to 10,000 bikes a year and build their own assembly facility or have us build their assembly facility.
That’s fantastic! They do what they do great. We do what we do great. We bring an effective program together, they fund it. It’s out of this world. All of these bikes are custom painted with the name of the company, Postabon.
They’re looking to give back. It’s a family owned company, very large, but they also get the added benefit of the marketing and the bike. So they’re doing good and doing well for themselves which is a great circular path and we get a footprint in South America, which to me is a good experiment. Is this thing scalable? It’s not scalable… if we can only do it in Africa... but now we’re into South America, so I’m excited about that.
Another corporate that has gotten involved is Cadbury, chocolates. They get a lot of cocoa from Ghana.
So now we’re beginning to see these corporates that have interests in developing countries or are located in developing countries, see that they can either empower their workers, or use it as a way to support the communities. A strong community is a better work force, a better workforce is good for the economy and it goes on and on.
They’ve said they want to do 3,000 bikes in Ghana and consider how to scale that up. So that’s a big deal.
BT: How are you progressing in getting some of the world’s biggest foundations and relief organisations to partner with you?
FK: At the World Economic Forum in Davos, that’s where all the ‘big wigs’ come together and they talk about how to make the world a better place… in December UBS Bank gave us a call to say they’d read about us and like what we’re doing. They have an association with World Vision Switzerland.
They said, ‘We’re going to stage a challenge at the World Economic Forum in Davos.’ They challenged the first 1,000 entrants into the event to wear the ‘Fitbits’ on their wrists to measure how far they walked during the event, because there’s a lot of people walking in third world countries. UBS said that for every six kilometres an individual walked they’d donate a bike to World Bicycle Relief.
(Editor’s note: UBS is a Swiss bank, founded in 1854, is one of the world’s largest banks with over 60,000 staff and operations in over 50 countries.)
The Chairman of UBS did an interview on CNN with their host Richard Quest. They talked about world economics for a bit and then they zeroed right in on World Bicycle Relief and both of them were wearing their Fitbits, it was fantastic.
They’re funding 2,500 bikes. Their bikes will start arriving in South Africa, probably in June. So along with funding 2,500 bikes, they’re going to spend several hundred thousand dollars to hire Stanford University to come in and measure the impact of the program.
The World Bank got wind of this, so it’s just like an avalanche. This one writer, Lezek J. Siblinski, began to study it deeper and deeper. He wrote this great article about World Bicycle Relief and cycling and asked, ‘Why isn’t the World Bank doing something more about this?’ His article was raising the spectre and importance of cycling worldwide and, ‘Here’s its impact in developing countries…’ and ‘Here’s its impact in developed countries…’
He said to us ‘That’s just my first article! I’m going to be the agitator inside the World Bank’.
BT: We’ve previously photographed a prototype of your combined back pedal brake and three speed internal ‘kick back’ rear hub that would require no external cabling at all. How is your testing going with this hub?
FK: We were going heavy at the three speed and one of the things we found is that there was so much heat generated by the brakes that it’s really not a three speed study. It’s, ‘How do you manage the heat from a brake?’ We can do three speeds, we can do two speeds, we can do one speed, but how do we manage that heat?
So we said, ‘Okay let’s do this first. Let’s build a robust single speed coaster brake designed specifically for heavy duty use and the rigors one would find in developing countries.’
Because right now we’ve built with KT China for eight years now, improving their brake. But it’s taken a design that was made for kids’ bikes or beach cruisers and we’ve bulked it up and made a bunch of changes to make it survive in Africa, but it’s still not enough.
We’ve taken the technology as far as it can possibly go. We need to start with a fresh sheet.
So we’ve yanked a couple of engineers from our SRAM facility in Schweinfurt Germany (FK and his brother Stan are co-founders of SRAM) and we’ve made a commitment to make this a serious project. We’ll do a one speed with a kickback brake and right after that follow with the three speed. So the one speed will give us the technology in brakes to execute the three speed.
Our German engineers, they’re just loving this project because they spent so much time struggling over shaving pennies off this or shaving grams off that and I’m like, ‘I don’t care about the weight, I don’t care if it makes noise. I just want its failure mode to be that the rear wheel locks up and then when it cools, down it runs again’.
BT: How is your Buffalo Bikes commercial arm going?
FK: It’s going great. So for example Cadbury and Postabon are bikes sold for profit. The bike costs are covered, our management fees are covered and all we’re doing is taking proven programs in the field, giving them the data, replicating the program then modifying it to fit their country. It’s not a gold mine but the costs are covered, so it’s scalable. I’m really jazzed about it.
BT: A year or so ago you set up the third world equivalent of a Concept Store in one of the world’s most corrupt and poor economies. Is it working?
FK: Our Zimbabwe guys, we’ve started two stores one in downtown Harare (the capital of Zimbabwe with a population of 2,800,000) and the other one I think is in Bulawayo (the second largest city in Zimbabwe with a population of 653,000).
They’re selling 200 to 300 bikes a month in what’s registered as the world’s worst economy. And the bikes are two to three times more expensive than anything else on the market there. The stories are hilarious. The store in Harare is right downtown and there’s a bike store, like six doors away, that buys bikes from our guy so he can sell them on Sunday at a higher profit when our store is closed.
I’m like, ‘Why don’t we keep our store open on Sunday?’ So people are recognising that there’s some value there and are willing to pay up for it.
The bikes retail for about US$165 (Aus $217) so we’ll sell one bike for $165 or if the dealer down the street wants 20 we’ll sell them for $163 (Aus $214) each to him. I think it’s unconscionable, but our guys are margin junkies and that’s all right with me. (laughs)
Our landed cost in Zimbabwe is probably for a fully assembled bike with duties and taxes and everything paid, and not many people pay all that in Zimbabwe, is probably $135 (Aus $177) to $140 (Aus $184) so $25 (Aus $33) to $30 (Aus $39) a bike, so that’s not bad.
It’s not a gold mine, but it’s meant to be scalable and it’s meant to be replicable. If we can do it so other people can copy us, we know that we’re right in the sweet spot of the economic model.
BT: What’s next for World Bicycle Relief?
FK: We just hired a new measuring and evaluation officer full time. She’s experienced in building marketing and evaluation studies and publishing and all of that. She’s going to take us to that next level.
We’ll keep growing and distributing more bikes, but even if we’re doing a million bikes a year, but not getting any data to share with the World Bank or UBS, we’re only going to be doing a million bikes and that’s not enough. We need to be doing tens of millions. Not just World Bicycle Relief on our own, but there needs to be tens of millions of heavy duty, high quality, low tech affordable bikes going into developing countries. We hope that demonstrating the power of bicycles will magnify the impact of our work so that many more people around the world have access to reliable, affordable transportation.
We are currently working with World Bicycle Relief’s head office in Chicago with a view to setting up ‘World Bicycle Relief Australia’ as an Australian based legal entity and registered charity. This would allow Australians to donate in local currency to a local entity and also, subject to government regulatory approval, offer tax deductibility for donations.
If you are interested in being involved with this new entity as a financial supporter, volunteer or possibly even as a Director, then please email firstname.lastname@example.org