Biking for a better world

Do you take the car, train or bicycle to work? We have so many choices getting from A to B that it’s hard to imagine that for many people walking is the only real option. And our own two legs can only take us so far.
In Africa, this is the reality for millions of people and, as a result, their ability to access health care, education and employment is severely limited, trapping them in cycles of poverty and ill health.

Bicycles for AfricaOver 3,000 second-hand Danish bikes have been sent to Africa by Baisikeli since 2008

But Danish bicycle company Baisikeli – Swahili for bicycle – is hoping to change that. This October they are setting up a workshop in Mozambique to sell and repair second-hand Danish bicycles, as well as manufacture bicycles for the global market. They are a business – unsupported by the government or charities – that has already sent thousands of bicycles to the continent to help foster social change by creating a sustainable bicycle culture in Africa.

It all started when Niels Bonefeld visited a small village in the mountains of Tanzania in 2005. Among the people he met, owning a bicycle was more than a lifestyle choice. Bicycle owners could access education and healthcare as well as increasing their income by improving their range and speed. Bonefeld knew his housing association scrapped about 400 bikes a year, so the potential resource in Denmark must be huge he thought.

Discovering that about 400,000 bicycles are discarded each year in Denmark, he approached his cousin Henrik Smedegaard Mortensen – who was studying at the social entrepreneurship school Kaospilots – about getting their hands on some of these bikes and sending them down to Africa. But while Mortensen thought the idea was brilliant, they had different thoughts about how to go about it.

“At the time I was thinking in a more businesses mindset that you could make money by sending the bikes down and selling them,” Bonefeld said. “But Henrik wanted to give them away. So we had a conflict but we both had a point. So we decided to combine the business and the social idea.”

After developing a business plan, Bonefeld was accepted onto the TV show ‘Denmark’s Best Idea’ (Danmarks Bedste Idé) on TV2 in 2006 where he pitched his idea to a panel of business experts and entrepreneurs. While he didn’t win the show, his idea clearly made an impact on insurance company Codan who agreed to sell Bonefeld their stock of bicycles that had been reported stolen, replaced and subsequently found in early 2007.

But they quickly ran into problems. After sending their first shipment of 40 bicycles to Sierra Leone in December 2007, they realised that they would have a hard time covering the costs of collecting and shipping them to Africa.

“That shipment made it clear that we would never be able to finance the business through the sales of the bikes. We became aware that we needed to create a business in Denmark,” Bonefeld said.

To generate revenue they opened a bicycle rental shop on Tuesensgade in Copenhagen in April 2008. The store was a success, turning over two million kroner in 2009, and buying them time to figure out the best way to make an impact with their bicycles in Africa.

“We could see that if we really want to make a change we needed to set up a bicycle industry in Africa. That created a huge change of focus. Instead of recycling and moving a physical commodity, we wanted to export knowledge about the bicycle industry.”

While they worked on developing the idea they moved from success to success, providing 770 rental bikes for the Velo-City 2010 bicycle conference and selling custom-built company bicycles to Novo Nordisk and bicycle trailers to IKEA. The company bikes and trailers – made out of steel and manufactured to withstand the rough African climate – will be sent to Africa after a few years, while the trailer will be converted to carry patients to hospital in areas that lack ambulances.

This summer Baisikeli opened another shop by Dybbølsbro station. Here they rent and sell second-hand bikes, manufacture and develop new types of bicycles – like simple cargo bicycles and bicycles for the disabled – and run a café that acts as a hub for bicyclists.

“The objective is to make a model or mother shop that we can copy so all the processes are taken into our workshop in Mozambique. The plan is that the staff here will teach the staff in Mozambique to do the same job as them,” Bonefeld explained

Their final plan circulates knowledge and goods between Africa and Denmark. Second-hand bicycles and Danish staff with the know-how are brought to Mozambique where they build a store and train local workers to sell and repair the bicycles. New bikes are also manufactured in the African workshop, which are then sold both in Africa and Denmark.

In the second stage, photographs and videos of western customers bicycling on African-built bicycles are used in Africa to market the product – the idea being if they’re good enough for Europeans and Americans, then Africans will warm even more to them and in so doing reinforce their market.

So far Baisikeli has sent over 3,000 bicycles to Africa, some of which are being used by dairy and coffee farmers to transport greater volumes of their goods to factories and distributors, increasing their salaries and stimulating local economies. It is a clever, unpatronising and effective idea that sees developing sustainable markets, rather than merely providing food and medicine aid, as the best method to foster a long-term solution to poverty.

Source – The Copenhagen Post onlinePeter Stanners – September 3, 2011