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Pedaling Change: Bikes to Rwanda

December 16th, 2010

Photo courtesy of Bikes to Rwanda

Welcome to Pedaling Change! There’s a lot of good work being done in the world of bikes, to alternative transportation advocacy to international development. To highlight some of the great action that’s going on out there, once a month we’ll be profiling a non-profit in the bike world to look at just how they’re working to make positive change.

When it comes to development, sometimes simple solutions have the greatest impact. That’s how Bikes to Rwanda (BTR) started, by asking one question and realizing that meaningful change could come from providing people with some of the simplest transportation on earth: a bicycle.

In its fourth year, the organization provides cargo bicycles to coffee co-operative farmers in Rwanda. By implementing a bike workshop and maintenance program, BTR provides transportation resources for basic needs and enhances production of quality coffee.

In the early 1990s Rwanda exported about 45,000 tons of coffee per year, a significant yield for a landlocked country. Then came the civil conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis, resulting in the massacre and deaths of close to one million people. Since that time, Rwanda has been in the throes of rebuilding, both a country and a culture. The coffee industry was hit hard as well, with much of the land destroyed and farmers killed. So in 2001, a program was put in place to help farmers recover their coffee industry, increase the efficiency of production, and highlight some of the finest coffee in the world.

This program, called Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages, has helped approximately 15,000 Rwandan coffee farmers organize 11 different cooperatives. BTR is now working to support those cooperatives. All with bicycles.

BTR Executive Director Brian Gilmore offered to answer some question to give us a little more insight into the organization and its work.

Give us a little background: what was the impetus for founding Bikes to Rwanda?

The impetus for the founding of BTR came from the community of coffee growers in Rwanda that Stumptown Coffee Roasters works with and that BTR now serves. Stumptown’s CEO and Green Coffee Buyer were visiting cooperatives and after witnessing how physically demanding a farmer’s daily routine was, they couldn’t help but wonder if there was something they could do to improve the farmers’ daily routines.  They put the question, “what could make your work easier?” to the farmers and the farmers volunteered that bicycles could really improve the efficiency of  their work.

Upon returning to Portland the guys from Stumptown rallied the coffee and bike communities and BTR was born.

Why bikes and coffee? Seems like a very Portland combo – do you think it has international appeal?

Why bikes and coffee?  Bikes offer a simple, sustainable solution to the needs of the folks producing coffee.  It’s a natural fit on that front.  Coffee and bikes of course have international appeal, in fact they have a long standing history together.  One of cycling’s true legends rode for a team sponsored by the espresso machine manufacturer Faema.  A cafe stop mid or post-ride is as integral a part of the ride as the ride itself.  Cyclists love coffee.  The difference outside of North America is that the origins of the coffee consumers are drinking, the varietals, the options, those facets of coffee culture aren’t as developed and making those connections — developing consumer interest in the origins of what they’re consuming — are the keys to integrating cycling and coffee with development work on a global scale.

Why do you think there are so many organizations that are combining bikes and international development?

Access to transportation is everything anywhere you are in the world.  You can live in the most metropolitan of cities, and have all that comes along with it and not be able to access any of it because you want for a means of transportation.

I don’t want to be accused of oversimplifying the complicated issues the developing world faces, but the reality is that a reliable, sustainable means of transportation like a bicycle removes one the most significant impediments to development, access to transportation.

Transportation increases the radius of the territory you can cover in a day, the cargo you can carry–it really changes the dynamic of someone’s life.

In a lot of instances the key resources likes schools, clinics, markets  are somewhere nearby, they’ve been established in a semi-central location in an effort to effectively and efficiently distribute scarce resources.   It’s up to the prospective user to get to the hub, which in geographically challenging terrain with poor infrastructure, is easier said than done.

Organizations realized the bicycle could resolve the access issue simply and effectively.  With a bike a farmer is a remote region could pedal into the larger town 30km away and back in a day if he needed, where before he’d be hard pressed to cover 20km total and couldn’t carry a load of produce with him.

Even in more populated areas they resolve the transportation issues.  Bikes would have been perfect for the headquarters staff of the organization I previously worked for in Sudan, eliminating their daily struggle to find a reliable means of getting to the office on time.

Bicycles in the developing world are also allowing organizations to break out of the mold a bit and take the resources to the outlying areas from the central hubs.  It’s not always a given that the outlying areas are aware there are resources available to them at the hub, or their residents are physically able to make the journey.

The bicycle provides a reliable, sustainable means of transportation, that is environmentally friendly.  For the cost of a single Land Cruiser several hundred bicycles can be purchased and distributed having a far greater reach and impact than a single vehicle ever could.

 

Photo courtesy of Bikes to Rwanda

What is Bikes to Rwanda looking to accomplish in the next year?

We’re on track for a significant expansion in 2011.  A donor has offered to provide up to $60,000 worth of funding, matching what we can raise dollar-for-dollar.  We have every intention of getting the most out of this opportunity and with the public’s support we can easily secure this match.  We’ll use the funding to acquire 400 cargo bikes, spare parts and tools from our materials supplier.  The infusion of gear will put us in position to scale up our work significantly.  We’ll roll out the expansion in phases using the expansion to leverage support from the international donor community in Rwanda to build BTR’s capacity there and ensure the proper infrastructure is in place to ensure long term sustainability.

We’ll highlight new coffee cooperatives to work with and identify new bike shop locations.  Domestically, we’ll be establishing programs with coffee roasters and cafes to pair them with the new cooperatives we begin to work with in Rwanda.  We are establishing a membership and sponsor supported amateur cycling club and elite amateur cycling team that will focus on the fast growing national cyclocross racing circuit to more directly and effectively raise awareness and support for BTR activities on a national scale.  In brief, that’s what we’re aiming to accomplish in 2011.

How can people get involved?

We rely heavily on support from individuals and businesses.  Donations of cash, frequent flyer miles, and goods and services in-kind keep BTR going.  We are constantly on the lookout for folks who are interested in volunteering to help us reach out to, and harness the coffee communities and bike communities around the country and around the globe.  But that’s not all.  There are a number of specific tasks and roles we need volunteers to play.  We’ll be developing training and reference materials for Rwandan mechanics and we’ll need assistance from educators and illustrators, photographers and designers to do so.  We’re are also hoping to involve the public in helping us come up with a better workshop design and we’re on the lookout for cyclists interested in joining our nascent cycling club and sponsors for our planned elite amateur cyclocross team.  Anyone interested in helping out should feel free to contact me directly via email at brian[at]bikestorwanda[dot]org

Do you think bikes can change the world?

I do.  They’re changing the world around us as we speak and I am confident that trend will continue.  There is very little downside to bikes as far as I am concerned and I believe more and more people are awakening to that fact and embracing their use in ways they personally never before thought possible.  I am proud that Bikes To Rwanda is able to play a small roll in making change happen by bike.

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