Africycle empowering communities through bicycles
Malawi is one of the front line countries in Africa where bicycles has such a profound imprint in the landscape, culture and community. Each of these bicycles carry a story of their own, holding a special memory to boot. Africycle’s story is no exception, bicycles are donated and packed all the way from volunteers and donors in Canada, then shipped for delivery to Malawi. Making an extraordinary journey across the sea’s and into the warm heart of Africa. These bicycles are then refurbished by locally trained mechanics to a high standard and resold in Malawi. Helping to overcome the challenges of bicycle supply in Malawi, more bicycles are now affordable to Malawians. A chain reaction that has lifted the local economy. A great example of how bicycles combined with training programmes and social enterprising can work together to create employment opportunities and aid service delivery.
We linked up with Ben Voss co-founder and current Executive Director at the helm of Africycle for a ride into the past and future of Africycle’s journey of changing and empowering lives of Malawians one bicycle shop at a time…
Back in 2005 Africycle’s first pilot project delivered 180 bicycles to Malawi, in what would be the start to a ground-breaking project delivery thousands of bikes. When you started this project did you ever imagine it would have such an profound impact in Malawi growing to the extent it has today. What were some of the challenges you were faced with back then?
We knew that bikes can bring an incredible value to the lives people in Malawi who depend on bicycles as a primary mode of transportation. The bikes we saw here in Malawi had not advanced in technology for decades and we saw the opportunity to utilize bikes collected in North America to help address this. It has been a steady development over the years that has helped to demonstrate the impact a bike can make on the average household life. The greatest demonstration of this has been seen through returning customers who attest to the quality and longevity of these bikes. We’ve also seen the bicycle industry landscape change as a result of the introduction of these bikes to the market. Now, across the country you can find dealers selling newer technology, however in a lot of cases these bikes are still poor quality and don’t offer the longevity of an Africycle bike.
Africycle also recently participated in the Winter Series Mountain Bike Challenge in 2017, With team entries participating in multiple races. Well done on the team efforts, How did that all come together? Will you be participating again in this year’s race?
Africycle was invited to join the Winter series on the final race in Zomba to help provide participants with bicycle rentals to participate. Several members of our staff joined for the event and entered last minute in the race despite hesitation when seeing cyclists fully geared out in proper attire and high end bikes. Our staff did incredibly well in the race, overcoming this initial hesitation. With some of the best riders in the country working at Africycle, we certainly expect to see them continue to do well in many of the cycling events throughout Malawi. Exposure from this event inspired some donors to send bikes to help equip these riders with the gear needed to maximize their skill sets
Over the years Africycle has also supplied countless numbers of bicycles to businesses, individuals and organisations, Where have you noticed the need for bicycles are the most in communities in Malawi?
The greatest need for bicycles can been seen in rural areas of Malawi. These are communities that have the greatest of distances to travel and generally the lowest level of income. Cost savings in using a bike versus public transport to walking, offer the greatest benefit. It also opens opportunities for further business or accessing jobs, education health care and meeting basic needs.
Your organisation has also worked closely with the Grace Orphan Care to provide funding that helped support over 250 extremely vulnerable and orphaned children. A wonderful initiative providing much needed support. How did this relationship come about and how does one ensure help goes to where its most needed.
From the onset of Africycle, we saw the opportunity to use the bicycles as a means of generating revenue to support local needs. The first shipment of bicycles was donated exclusively, however we saw that there was much more potential in starting a business that could sustain itself, provide the infrastructure needed to build the bicycle industry and support local programs. From the onset of Africycle we have worked with Grace Orphan Care and now have a number of other projects we are able to support as well.
With the new year beginnings taking on its way, Are there any major projects that Africycle is planning to embark on in the near future?
We continue to move ahead by building on our shop network in southern Malawi, with the goal of covering most of the country. We want to focus our efforts on creating access to rural communities who can most benefit from these bicycles. As we build our network of shops, we will continue to partner with local programs that can further the development of rural communities.
Many Malawians simply cannot afford a bicycle however Africycle has created a monthly payment plan which can be paid off over 6 months. Has this also helped to alleviate some of the cost challenges faced with in poorer communities? Would you say it’s more a matter of supply than demand?
Many households in the rural areas have limited income, often occupied by accessing there very basic needs. The purchase of a bicycle would consume almost 2 months of a typical income. The ability to spread that payment out over time, will allow the individuals to become mobile immediately, while creating opportunities to generate further income and or reduce travel costs in order to help pay off the bike in time. Its seems there will be a large demand for these services as we look to expand.
Training plays a pivotal role in community development, Mechanical training programmes such as the courses you offer would have a direct benefit into local communities, especially when combined with offering products and services Will you tell us more about these programmes and how they are implemented.
The Africycle first emerged in the Malawian cycle market, no mountain bikes were available in the country. This presented a sustainability issue for those purchasing or receiving our bikes. We saw the need to train and equip people with the knowledge and capacity to use, maintain and repair these bikes. We developed basic training courses that we could pass on this knowledge to the end user in order to maximize the benefits of these bicycles and ensure that they would be a benefit and not a burden to the end users.
We always on the look-out for quality bicycles ourselves, where can we find your shops in Zomba? are there any plans to open up more shops?
Currently Africycle has shops located outside Zomba in Phalombe, Mulanje and Chikwawa. We anticipate opening a branch in Lilongwe in the coming months. For people wanting to do some local riding in Zomba, we also offer daily or weekly rentals.
For organisations and individuals looking to lending a help hand or wheel. What are some of the ways they can get involved?
We are always grateful for the support of individuals and organizations. Firstly, even by purchasing a bicycle from Africycle you are helping us to meet the needs in other areas and demonstrating our product to more people. As a social enterprise all funds are going to help build the reach of Africycle as well as support community projects. Partnering with organizations to provide fleet sales and training, allows Africycle to also support the work of other organizations as well as providing valuable skill sets to those individuals through training programs. We often accept volunteers interested in working with Africycle according to their skill-sets. This is generally flexible but we want to be sure everyone will get some value from the experience. Finally, getting bikes…we depend on volunteer networks around the world to source the bicycles we use here in Malawi. this is an incredible resource to us and allows us to continue providing affordable and high quality bikes. Financial support allows us to expand our reach and services to more people and provide valuable support to local community projects through activities such as bicycle donations.
Looking through the years since Africycle’s creation. What has been some of your most memorable highlights?
Seeing Africycle grow over the years has been a challenging but rewarding experience. There are many things that stand out, however i think seeing so many people in the Zomba area riding bikes that have come from around the world is always quite amazing to me. Having now imported more than 10,000 bikes, they are easy to spot. Our customer testimonials are always incredible to hear just how much the bike has helped them and how reliable they’ve been. We make a number of donations to local organizations with limited capacity and funding in order to help mobilize their volunteers and staff. The ability to see how much more these grassroots groups can accomplish with a bike helps to demonstrate the value and power which a bike can achieve towards making a difference.
Africycle is meeting the needs of thousands of commuters in Zomba Malawi. By providing access to quality refurbished bicycles, Africycle is empowering communities with mobility and access to alternative transport – in turn leading to self sustainability, better service delivery, employment and most importantly getting people moving. For more information about getting involved or simply donating or getting a bicycle . Be sure to visit www.africycle.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
Planning on visiting Malawi and interested in jumping on a mountain bicycle seat? Create your own custom tour or join one of our tours for a cycling adventure combining the beautiful wildlife, nature and lakeside landscapes of Malawi. Email email@example.com for bookings and enquiries and Cycle Malawi!