By Stan Purdum
When Road Bike Rider published its List of Bike Brands from A to Z, we invited readers to use the comments section to add any brands not included in the list. And readers did, which was reminder of how wide the field of bicycle makers is.
One reader’s suggestion was a surprise: “Buffalo bikes. Made for African backwoods.” And that prompted another reader to respond, “The Buffalo is a great addition — that’s the World Bicycle Relief bike … a $147 donation puts one of those indestructible beasts in the hands of a student, entrepreneur, or health care worker. Primarily Africa, but WBR may have a foothold in South America as well.”
The two comments were enough to arouse curiosity. I investigated the Buffalo bicycle and was impressed by what I found.
World Bicycle Relief is an international nonprofit program founded in 2005 by Frederick K. “F.K.” Day and his wife Leah Missbach Day in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami with the intention of providing bicycles to people displaced by the disaster. The group’s experience there became the foundation for its eventual work elsewhere.
F.K. Day is a founder of SRAM Corporation, one of the major bicycle component makers. SRAM specializes in product development for high-end bicycles used by racers and enthusiasts, so Day knew a lot about bikes. But in an TED talk earlier this year (see it here below), he said that there are so many transportation options in the developed world he’d forgotten the basic thing that bicycles provide: transportation.
But while watching the news following the 2004 killer tidal wave, he realized that basic transportation is critically important in places where the only other option for many people is walking. So Day contacted some international charities to see if they were interested in a bicycle program for the affected area, but none of them saw the vision. So Day and his wife, who is a documentary photographer, flew to Sri Lanka, where they talked to relief workers on the ground, who immediately confirmed the need for bicycles. While there, Leah used her photography skills to share stories of those hurt by the tsunami’s devastation.
Together, with solid backing from SRAM Corporation and an outpouring of support from industry leaders, the Days helped to launch WBR to provide bicycles to those in need due to the tsunami. Partnering with aid organizations, WBR distributed more than 24,000 locally sourced bicycles to displaced survivors in Sri Lanka.
Afterward, WBR hired a firm to measure the results. It found that the bicycles enabled major positive impact in education (students able to get to school), healthcare (healthcare workers able to get to patients in remote areas) and economic development (entrepreneurs able to build their small businesses and transport goods). Plus, all the recipients were able to help their families with their transportation needs.
Moving to Africa
The Days liked what they’d accomplished … until a relief worker pointed out that while 230,000 people died in the tsunami, a similar number of people die every two weeks in Africa from hunger or preventable diseases. And that was followed by an invitation to partner with a large-scale health program in Zambia. The USAID-funded program, RAPIDS, trained and equipped community healthcare workers to teach villagers disease prevention and how to care for the sick and dying, all to help combat the AIDS epidemic. But because of the distances involved, the workers spent hours on foot getting to the villages and their patients. In fact, the distances limited the number of patients the workers could see, and some, having to spend so much time and energy walking, had little left for their own families and thus were dropping out of the program.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 600 million people live in rural communities where walking is the primary or only transportation option for many. “Every day is about racing the sun, from sunup to sundown, trying to complete the day’s work before the darkness of night,” said the TED talk description. “Each step is a race to overcome the barrier of distance.” But against that, there’s a quantum leap in productivity when students, healthcare workers and entrepreneurs are mobilized through the power of bicycles.
Buffalo Bikes Are Born
Thinking to replicate its methods from Sri Lanka, WBR tried to source bicycles from manufacturers in India and China who market the bikes in Africa, as there is no mass-market African bicycle manufacturer. But WBR found that all the available bikes broke down quickly (F.K. describes them as BSOs — Bicycle-Shaped Objects.) When WBR contacted these manufacturers, all but one didn’t seem to care. That one, however, was glad for the feedback and asked how it could improve the product. Thus, rather than rush ahead and distribute bikes that were going to fail, WBR first worked with willing manufacturers to strengthen the supply chain.
The result: the Buffalo Bike. Here’s how WBR describes its bikes on its website (I’ve translated the kilograms to pounds):
Buffalo Bicycles are durable, featuring steel alloy frames, forks and spokes and a rear carrier capacity rated to 220 lbs. Weighing in at 11 lbs, (a complete bike is 53 lbs.), the heft of the steel frame is not a hindrance but evidence of the bicycle’s strength. WBR is committed to using high-quality, well-designed parts. This improves the bicycle’s functionality, reliability and strength, and keeps more Buffalo Bicycles on the road.
The Buffalo Bicycle is engineered for more tasks, serving as a powerful economic engine in rural communities. The specially designed frame, carrier and stand of the Buffalo Bicycle provide the stability needed to support big loads and passengers over long distances in remote areas. The short dipping top tube offers a preferred upright riding position for both men and women and allows easier mounting, especially when under load. The carrier’s rigidity coupled with the frame make load carrying much more stable. The center stand simplifies loading for heavy or bulky cargo.
Buffalo Bikes Support Healthcare and Education
Eventually, WBR supplied 160,000 of these robust steeds to healthcare workers in 18 African countries, which enabled the workers to travel four times farther and see twice as many patients.
WBR also addressed the education goal and provided 150,000 bicycles to African students on a study-to-own program; if a student used the bicycle to stay in school for two years, the student could keep the bike. Round trips to school that took fours hours on foot and caused students to arrive at both ends of the journey exhausted, now took an hour, leaving energy for both schoolwork and home responsibilities. The bicycles led to a 25 percent increase in school attendance for the bicycle recipients and a 55 percent increase in performance.
To identify who should receive the bicycles, WBR first identifies schools based on partnerships on the ground with organizations like World Vision, Save The Children, FHI 360 etc. From there, they work with Bicycle Supervisory Committees made up of approximately 12 community leaders, teachers, parents, village elders, a trained field mechanic and student leaders to identify which students travel the farthest, have family health challenges, deceased parents, are most impoverished, or are facing other challenges.
Buffalo Bikes as a Driver of Economic Development
As the students and healthcare workers fanned out on their Buffalo bicycles, a lot of small business owners and farmers realized that the bikes could be a means to grow their enterprises or transport themselves and materials for their work. They, along with many other people who simply needed basic transportation began inquiring whether they could purchase Buffalo Bikes. So the nonprofit WBR set up a wholly owned for-profit, Buffalo Bicycles, Ltd., to handle such sales, which in turn, provides a revenue stream for the nonprofit work.
Speaking of the for-profit sales unit, F.K. said, “The beauty is that it’s beginning to deliver bikes much further afield than we could ever do philanthropically.”
WBR employs over 100 people in the United States, Asia and Africa, and has started work in South America. It operates five bicycle assembly facilities in Kenya, Malawi, Angola Zambia and Zimbabwe, providing jobs for those workers. Get a close-up look at one of these assembly facilities here:
The workers build the bikes from parts WBR sources from manufacturers in Asia who can provide the highest quality components at the lowest cost. The company currently works with industry leaders like Giant to supply bike frames and other components. The organization envisions that in future, the parts might be manufactured in Africa.
Buffalo Bike Mechanics
Also related to economic development — as well the continuing usability of the bicycles — are the local mechanics WBR trains and equips.
WBR trains one mechanic for every 50-100 bicycles distributed through its philanthropic programs. To date, over 1,900 field mechanics have been trained. Mechanic candidates apply for the training and are chosen based on previous experience, potential, commitment to come to a five-day training session and other factors.
From the website: “Because field mechanics serve students in rural areas that other World Bicycle Relief employees cannot regularly access, they create a network that helps inform World Bicycle Relief about regional needs. Their routine maintenance service helps prevent breakdowns, keeping our bikes rolling for years to come.”
How the Money Is Spent
As stated by the one of the RBR commenters, a donation of $147 will provide a bicycle for WBR to distribute. But smaller donations are welcome. $50 will purchase a toolset for a mechanic; $25 will pay for a wheelset.
After exploring the WBR website, I decided to make a cash donation. They state that 70 percent of money donated goes directly to providing bicycles. The remaining 30 percent goes into administrative costs and fundraising expenses That’s better than average for a legitimate charity.
In 2015, Fast Company named World Bicycle Relief among its Most Innovative Companies for organizations working on the continent of Africa.