The Bicycle Is Freedom

06/06/2013 05:14 EDT | Updated 08/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Ever since I was a kid I've held a deep-seated belief in the power of bicycles, seeing them as a greatly overlooked and under appreciated form of transportation. I remember as a teenager in the suburbs, watching lines of unhappy drivers, alone in their cars, stuck in traffic, and zipping past them with the wind in my face and thinking, "the bicycle is real freedom!"

As a young adult I traveled to Africa with the Peace Corps, expecting to see a lot of bicycles. Bikes are the obvious first step up from walking. They are low cost, versatile on bad roads, and easy to maintain. To my surprise there were very few. I learned that many African governments considered bicycles to be merely toys for recreation, and imposed high tariffs on imports, making them unattainable. Then I heard about Bikes Not Bombs, sending containers of used bikes to Nicaragua during the Contra War, and thought that was brilliant.

A dozen years passed and I was ready to do something for bikes in Africa. I learned that in the mid '90s Ghana had removed import duties on bicycles, as a way of helping the rural people. I decided I needed to see for myself, and in 1999 I first came to Ghana, and started Village Bicycle Project, dedicated to sustainably improving access to bicycles, through repair education, bikes, tools, and spare parts.

Ten years later VBP teamed up with Cadbury's Bicycle Factory, similarly invested in the sustainability of bicycles. The Bicycle Factory rallies Canadians to help build and send up to 5,000 bicycles from Canada each year, giving them to students in cocoa farming communities. VBP helps get the bikes into the country and, once they're here, we teach children and locals how to maintain them. Focusing on sustainability, we go into schools and give workshops on basic upkeep and repair.

Many Ghanaian children must walk great distances to school, some going as much as 10 kilometers each way. Naturally, that leads to poor attendance, diminished performance, and early dropout. By providing bikes to these students, the Cadbury Bicycle Factory greatly improves their chances of a better education and, in turn, a more successful life. It is VBP's role to ensure that these kids can take care of their bikes.

Working with up to 25 students per session, we start with a simple mantra: "get a small problem fixed before it becomes a big one." A puncture can be repaired for 50 cents while a shredded tire and tube will cost at least $10. But we go further, teaching everything from patching tubes to testing bearings to how to ride properly.

The kids in the program are so proud of their bikes that they want to wash them. Of course, oil and grease do not mix with soap and water, so we show them how to clean without doing damage. The Ghanaian roads and terrain can be hard on accessories like mud guards, chain guards, and baskets -- but the bicycle itself is durable. The frame and running gear can take a lot of abuse.

Many of the students understand what's at stake. Here, a bicycle leads to education and education brings opportunities. Those who don't take that for granted and those who make the simple connection often go on to do amazing things. They are tomorrow's leaders.

In my time here, I have heard countless tales of success. Simeon had to walk eight kilometers to and from school each day while Abigail gets up before dawn to do several hours of chores before even setting out. Now, they make their journeys in about one-fourth the time. In school they're engaged, excited, and awake, and their improved grades and attendance prove it.

In particular, bikes give young women like Abigail a real advantage. In traditional Ghanaian households, girls are counted upon for a great share of the everyday work. So, when they have to travel great distances to get to class after already working for several hours, their performance suffers and they tend to drop out early. Studies show that the longer a girl stays in school, the higher her income will be, and the longer she waits to have children, who then grow up healthier, ultimately leading to fuller, more productive lives.

It is important to empower kids. During one of our workshops, I met three friends who commuted four kilometers from Dwenase to Osino every day. They clearly were invested in their bicycles; you could tell by the accessories they'd added. They had a lot of good questions about upkeep and maintenance. To reward their interest, we gave them tools so they could not only fix their own bikes, but also assist their neighbours and fellow students.

The difference that one bike can make to a child is extraordinary and by working with students, local mechanics, teachers, and farmers, we can be part of a real cultural shift. People think they want to have a car, but for the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africans that's an unattainable dream. A bike is a very real possibility.

As more people ride, the more sustainable the bicycle systems will become. Critical mass brings economies of scale. We can assist the growth of a solid supply chain, helping make parts and repairs readily and affordably available. We have seen it in places like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Portland. The difference is that in Ghana bicycles significantly change people's lives, helping overcome poverty. The improved access to schools that the Bicycle Factory provides, mirrors the benefits that other cyclists enjoy like improved access to farms, water supplies, market, and health care, and improvements to everyday life in rural areas.

We're helping kids take care of their bikes so they can get to school today, tomorrow, and in the future, giving them a better shot at previously unimaginable success.