THE BLOG
06/23/2016 03:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Bicycles Are Making Life Better For Africans

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Those of us living in developed countries often take good roads, affordable transportation and quick and easy access to vital services, for granted. But instead of being able to jump in your car and go where you want when you want, what if you had to walk those many miles to work, school and market each day? Think of the wasted hours and how exhausted you would be each night. Ponder the myriad educational, economic and healthcare opportunities that would simply be out of your reach. Sadly, many of the villagers of Sierra Leone and Ghana don't have to imagine such a scenario; it's a description of their daily lives. Indeed, a lack of transportation is one of the biggest challenges facing the rural inhabitants of these Western African nations. The distances villagers have to travel are long, the roads are mostly rutted dirt and public transportation is prohibitively expensive or nonexistent. These are big, systemic problems that at times can seem unsolvable. So it might come as a surprise to learn that something so simple as a bicycle can go a long way toward setting these villagers on the road to a better life.

Simple Yet Complex

There aren't many things simpler than the humble bicycle -- which is why it can be so useful in helping rural Africans get ahead. Bikes don't burn precious fuel, they're relatively easy to operate and can handily navigate rough roads that would quickly reduce the typical family sedan to a bucket of bolts. Sure, bikes may be simple but getting them into the hands of African villagers is anything but. Bikes, and the skills, tools and parts needed to keep them rolling, are in short supply in these remote parts of Africa. The few bikes that do exist are usually reserved for men and boys, leaving women and girls on foot. Still, there aren't enough bikes even for the male population. It's a problem, the solution to which, may be sitting, dust-covered, in your garage right this minute.

The Village Bicycle Project

And that's where the Village Bicycle Project, VBP, comes in. Founded in 1999 by Dave Peckham who was a Peace Corp volunteer, VBP is helping Africans improve their daily lives and economic futures by providing them with reliable, low-cost and environmentally sustainable transportation. Based in Seattle, VBP collects unwanted bicycles from all over the globe and ships them to Africa. Instead of bikes just hanging on hooks or winding up in scrap yards, they're put to good use helping people create better lives.

More Than Just Two Wheels

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It's one thing to have a bike. It's something else to learn how to ride it and keep it rolling. So in addition to providing bicycles, VBP trains and outfits mechanics and offers cycling classes. One, the Learn To Ride Program, is aimed at teaching African women and girls how to handle and maintain their bikes. Lovetta, a graduate of Learn To Ride, lives in the village of Lunsar, and the two-week course changed her life. She used to spend several hours each day walking to and from her job. The long, hot trip left her with little time and energy for anything else. Now, thanks to her newly acquired bike and cycling skills, instead of hours, her commute takes only minutes. She finally has time for shopping, family and friends and her whole community benefits.

It Takes A Village

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The Village Bicycle Project continues to improve the lives of Africans but it's a big job and they can't do it all by themselves. So VBP maintains a small staff and counts on volunteers to perform the bulk of the work and, through tax-deductable donations, help defray the cost of shipping, distribution and classes. Many organizations have also partnered with VBP to provide grants, services, tools and parts. Private citizens and community organizations donate bikes and volunteers collect, prepare and load the cycles into shipping containers, which then make the journey to Africa. Once there, VBP mechanics perform needed repairs and the bikes are made available to villagers. It's a complex, ongoing international operation that requires spot-on logistic coordination and thousands of volunteer man-hours to execute.

100,000 And Counting

Over the past 17 years, VBP has collected and shipped nearly 100,000 bikes, taught cycling skills to entire villages, trained scores of bicycle mechanics and supplied a mountain of spare parts and tools. The result is that thousands of Africans have been able to lift themselves out of poverty--all because they now have something so simple as a working bike.

Darby Roach is a writer and world traveler. His latest book, Over The Hill And Around The World is an Amazon best seller.