Getting around on two wheels

Bicycles Against Poverty located on Eden Road in Gulu, Uganda. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Bicycles Against Poverty simplifies transportation in Uganda at an affordable cost

Bicycles Against Poverty is only about a 10-minute walk down Eden Road, but as I arrived, I wondered why I did not take a bicycle.

The small handmade sign at the entrance was just a bit off the road —enough that, if you were not looking for it, you might miss it. A yellow dog was lying lazily in the sun next to a sun-faded green gate. Peering through the slats, I could see a modest house and a yard full of tall trees. It reminded me of a farmstead from back home, only filled with mango and palm trees.

Men wearing coveralls were working on a few bicycles at the far end of the yard. Next to me,  the dog yawned, and I assumed he was not their guard dog. Or at least not a very good one.

I let myself in through the gate. In front of the house, I was greeted by a young man standing in the shade. He introduced himself as Nicholas Ogaba, the credit officer for Bicycles Against Poverty, or BAP. He told me he had been working there for almost five years. The first few were spent as a community-based trainer, acting as a liaison with the community, then as an intern. He came aboard full-time three years ago.

Credit Officer at Bicycles Against Poverty, Nicholas Ogaba. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Based in northern Uganda, BAP is a microfinance organization that helps people with modest incomes in need of credit loans. BAP was created in 2009 to assist with the rebuilding of northern Uganda after a brutal, 20-year civil war between Joseph Kony’s militia and government troops. With a significant number of people displaced and many livelihoods drastically altered, the conflict had subsequently left the region struggling to adapt to a whole new way of life.

In the wake of this social disruption, a man named Muyambi Muyambi ventured up to Gulu from the south of the country so that he could better understand what had happened and assess the situation in-person to see what he could do to help.

Since access to reliable and affordable transportation was one of the main concerns in Uganda, both before and after the war, Muyambi explored various ideas that might offer transportation solutions to those who needed it most. Eventually, he thought of the idea that eventually became BAP. It was simple: provide transportation to everyone who needed it by combining modest and reasonable loans with a mode of transportation that would be easy to use and easy to maintain. And so Bicycles Against Poverty (BAP) was born.

According to the numerous people I had spoken with in Uganda, wheeled transportation is not only more convenient than walking, it can also mean access to cleaner water, to improved healthcare and to better education. More importantly, for agriculturally-based communities, it also provides access to better profit margins for produce by allowing small-holdings farmers to access more markets and buyers.

When a simple bicycle is fitted with a sturdy rear rack, it becomes more than just a bicycle. It becomes a sort of truck capable of carrying sacks of grain, bunches of bananas or, in many cases, live chickens. (I even had the opportunity to witness bicycles transporting live pigs and goats.) During my initial meeting at BAP in late June, Ogaba even told me a farmer living outside Gulu had found his wife collapsed and unconscious on the floor of their home, but was able to ferry her to the local healthcare facility on his bicycle. Think about that—a bicycle ambulance.

The Avon Five Star bicycle manufactured in India, but assembled in Gulu. Photo by Travis Sanderson

But why the bicycle? Based on my three months in Uganda, motorcycles, which Ugandans referred to as “bodas,” appeared to be fairly ubiquitous across the country. They filled the streets everywhere I went. However, as many of the boda men told me, these vehicles, which cost more than four million shillings (about $1,400 CAD), are often out of reach for many Ugandans. Not to mention they are expensive to maintain and, of course, the cost of fuel is another expense to factor in. In comparison, a bicycle is affordable, relatively easy to maintain and doesn’t require any fuel.

The total cost of one of these bicycles is 270,000 Ugandan shillings (about $90 CAD). When purchased through BAP, there is no interest charged and, to keep the logistics and associated costs simplified and efficient, groups of 15 people or more are encouraged to apply under a united “village savings and loan association.” Through these associations, individuals agree to a minimum and maximum weekly savings commitment, say between 1,000 and 5,000 shillings. As a group, this fosters a savings pool which can further increase the performance of those savings as well as their purchasing power. Once approved for participation in the program, an initial payment of 40,000 shillings is required to guarantee delivery of a bicycle while the remaining balance is then paid off by the participants at a rate of 24,000 shillings per month for 10 months.

As Ogaba explained to me, the bicycles BAP uses, which are manufactured by an Indian company called Avon, are not only affordable but also noted for their robust construction. This makes them more suited for the rough roads of the Ugandan countryside. The bicycles arrive in Gulu disassembled and in cardboard boxes, but a team of four workmen from BAP can  assemble the bikes at a rate of one every two hours per worker, or a total of 12 per day collectively. The bicycles are then distributed on predetermined days to rural communities by loading all the bikes on a transport truck. Ogaba estimated that more than 1,000 bicycles have been distributed since he’s begun working with the company, and BAP’s bicycles are now distributed anywhere within about 100 kilometres of Gulu to communities such as Amoro and Anaka.

Lead mechanic at BAP, Peko Innocent and operations director, Brian Facet make final adjustments on the delivered bicycles. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Although Muyambi is no longer involved with BAP at the ground level—he’s pursuing his MBA at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in New Hampshire—he is still an active board member based in the United States.

The organization is now also working to address the transportation needs of participating groups, especially small-holdings farmers who may be more vulnerable with respect to access to markets, water points, healthcare and schooling because of their increased isolation from these resources.

Ogaba said he is confident in his team’s ability to achieve their new goals, and I given no reason to argue. What BAP is doing appears to me to be a well-run and well-thought-out approach to empowerment.

I noticed Ogaba check his watch, and I realised I had taken enough of his time. After all, there were still many bikes to assemble, and delivery day fast approaching. So, with the local customary handshake—a traditional clasp of hands with an added grasp of each other’s thumbs, then back to the clasp—I bade my new friends farewell and made my way back to the sun-faded green gate. As I closed it behind me, my wave goodbye was reciprocated by all inside but went completely unnoticed by the lazy dog, still basking in the sun.

Community, Empowerment, Education, Development—or CEED—is a non-profit organization based in both Montreal and Gulu, Uganda. It works to empower youth to be agents of change in their communities through cross-cultural skills development and information sharing.

Each year, students from Concordia University travel to Uganda and work alongside Ugandan interns on various community projects that aim to benefit the youth of Gulu.

Travis Sanderson spent three months working as a communications intern in Uganda this summer. He has produced both written material and radio documentaries that reflect his experiences with the people of Uganda.

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