Making a Difference, One Bicycle at a Time

06/06/2013 02:58 EDT | Updated 08/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Imagine doing chores all morning, walking for three hours to school, then being expected to learn in a hot room with the sun beating down. That is the daily reality for thousands of children in Ghana's cocoa growing communities.

Naturally, many of these kids fall asleep on their desks and struggle to pay attention, which leads to infrequent attendance, poor performance, a general dislike of education, and, eventually, drop outs. As a result, kids face much lower odds of reaching their potential and improving their circumstances. But there is a solution and it can actually begin with bicycles.

Since 2009, I have worked alongside a program called the Cadbury Bicycle Factory. A Canadian initiative, it sends 5,000 bikes to Ghana annually. I have seen the power of these bicycles firsthand, hearing countless stories of their impact.

"Education holds the key to our children's future," said cocoa farmer Patric Otcher from the New Juaben District. "For the first time in our community, four children have qualified to enter the Senior Secondary School because they had used the bicycles to attend school regularly."

Solomon Dawutey, a farmer from Krobom, pointed out, "We worried about rain beating [our children] as well as getting bitten by snakes. With the bikes many children from our village now attend school and we [hope] that in the near future our village will be full of quality and great leaders."

As the Ghanaian Country Lead for Mondelēz's Cocoa Life program - which aims to improve the overall lives of people in cocoa farming communities - I work hands-on with the factory to allocate and distribute the bikes.

Over the last several years, we have collaborated with the Canadian team. At the beginning, we provided feedback on the local terrain. Normal bicycles would not be appropriate because conditions can be very challenging. Also, if the bicycles were too complicated then it would be very difficult to maintain them.

Each year, one of our most important concerns is determining which children need the bikes most. At Cocoa Life, we communicate directly with community partners to identify the ones that walk at least three kilometers to school, both ways.

We also consider gender. For young girls, education makes an even greater impact. In our traditional society, when boys wake up in the morning all they have to do is brush their teeth, take a bath, have their meal, and then head off to school.

On the other hand, girls must fetch water, sweep the house and do the previous night's dishes. After all of this is done, they still walk a great distance. So, they're always late, their performance suffers and they have a higher risk of stopping early. To avoid this, we give them preferential treatment when deciding on allocation.

Initially, when the bicycles first arrive, many communities hold a ceremony to share their excitement. By drawing attention from the Ghana Education Service and policy makers, they also try to encourage further expansion of the program.

Along with the Canadian team, I have attended two of these ceremonies. Each brought the entire community out - dressed in their finest clothes - for a huge celebration. For many children, receiving their bicycles represents the high point in their academic lives.

When the trucks arrive, the children's faces light up. Watching them walk toward their bicycles for the first time, wearing their school uniforms, always gives me goose bumps. Some have ridden before while others have not, but they all get on right away and give it a try. It's an amazing sight.

With more than 18,000 bicycles in the system, the Cadbury Bicycle Factory is known throughout Ghana. Though it only represents a fraction of Mondelēz's efforts in the community, it meets a critical need and makes an extraordinary impact.

Without a doubt, overall academic performance in cocoa-growing communities has improved drastically. School enrollment is very high and attendance and retention continue to rise. But the effects go much deeper than that.

In Ghana, social mobility is based on education - not wealth or your family name. These bicycles offer a platform and foundation for children, letting them aspire to greater success. A long and rewarding education begins with attendance and ultimately relies on a love of school.

Now, these same students are active and engaged. They explore new interests and discover the joy of learning. By staying in school for just four extra months, their prospects greatly improve. I have seen this happen time and again.

Yes, bikes shape individual lives, yet they also change culture on the whole. Once we have what I call the bucket of services for children -reading clubs, interested teachers, learning materials, etc. - a love of school will follow.

Since the start of the bicycle program, I have heard many students say things like, "I didn't know math was so interesting!" These kids are passionate about education and better positioned for long-term success.

And this is just a start. When people ask me, "How long will we keep sending bikes to Ghana?" I always answer, "As long as we have children in the cocoa communities."