SEATTLE, Washington — Many poor people around the world reside in rural areas where the distance from job opportunities, schools and healthcare keeps them in isolation and poverty. Without access to transportation, the rural poor cannot reach markets and essential services. Rural isolation is also associated with low use of modern agricultural technology and fertilizer, which results in reduced agricultural productivity. In addition, lack of transportation is linked with poor health statistics, such as high perinatal mortality rates and reduced school enrollment in impoverished communities in Africa.
Transportation for Rural Populations
A 2014 study published by the Overseas Development Institute showed that in rural locations, overall agricultural productivity correlated to the amount of time it took to travel to a large town. Besides this, having a means of transportation is crucial to overcoming the “three delays” in healthcare: deciding to seek healthcare, traveling to reach it and getting treatment. Not many people in rural areas of developing countries own their own vehicles.
Many poor people around the world reside in the countryside. The distance from job opportunities, schools and healthcare keeps them in isolation and poverty. For example, the 2017 Global Mobility Report showed that more than 70% of the total rural population in Africa lacked access to transportation. In urban areas, population growth outstrips the growth in public transportation by far, thus limiting access to economic and social opportunities.
In 2006, one-third of the global rural population lacked access to transport service and all-weather roads. According to World Bank statistics, Kenya only had 24 cars per 1,000 people in 2009-2013; Uganda, 8 per 1,000 people and Rwanda, 5 per 1,000 people. Because of this, getting around typically involves walking, riding bicycles or using carts pulled by animals. In impoverished communities in Africa, bicycles can provide crucial transport to everyday locations like schools, healthcare and markets. They can also open up employment opportunities.
Paolo Richter’s Bright Idea
Swiss social entrepreneur Paolo Richter had a hobby of collecting and fixing old bicycles. When Switzerland began experiencing high levels of unemployment in the early 1990s, Richter started a program in Bern called Gump- & Drahtesel, which gives unemployed people a job restoring bikes. Not long after the recycling workshop began, they filled the warehouse with bicycles.
Around that time, Richter’s friend from Ghana, Mozato Ohene-Akonor, paid him a visit during which they decided to send the repaired bikes to impoverished communities in Africa. Soon after, the first container of bicycles left the Swiss workshop for Ghana. Thus began the charity “Velos for Africa,” which later became Velafrica.
Bicycles for Africa’s Poor
Velafrica exports the recycled bicycles to partners around sub-Saharan Africa, shipping them to countries such as Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, the Ivory Coast and Eritrea. In 2019 alone, Velafrica sent out 47 containers containing more than 20,000 bicycles. To accomplish this, the organization repairs bikes at more than 34 workshops around Switzerland and accepts bikes at about 400 collection locations around the country.
Additionally, throughout the year, Velafrica holds more than 100 events for the collection of donated bicycles. Velafrica currently supports nine partners in various African countries. Through these partnerships, it promotes bicycle repair workshops, trains bicycle mechanics and runs community programs promoting bicycle transportation among women and children.
So far, affordable bicycle mobility has improved the lives of more than 700,000 people. In 2009, the Schwab Foundation decorated Paolo Richter as Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year. Later, in 2015, the Ashoka foundation named Velafrica as part of the Swiss Changemakers Programme.
The Pandemic’s Impact on Velafrica
Today, the good work of Velafrica continues. Although some bicycle centers have had to stop temporarily or pull back on operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bicycles are still a way to bolster communities against the coronavirus. Healthcare workers can reach people more quickly on bikes to give them information, masks and other equipment. Bicycle transport aids food and water delivery along with access to health centers for medicine. More than ever, the transportation access that Velafrica provides is crucial to the well-being of impoverished communities in Africa.
– Sarah Betuel