As a student at Chiyota Basic School in Zambia, Tendai Faith Phiri used to walk long exhausting distances to go to school. She was so tired when she arrived in class that she fell behind her studies. She thought she would never achieve her dream of completing grade 12 and going to college to become a teacher. Thanks to World Bicycle Relief, she will now make it. “I can build a good job,” Tendai points out, “[and] with my money, I will buy my clothes and shoes for my brothers.”
How can bicycles help Tendai and thousands of other African children attend school and boost their academic performance in rural Africa?
In rural areas, too many school-age children, particularly girl students, are forced to choose between attending school and doing household chores. Due to the long distances between homes and schools, which often are 10 – 15km each way, travel to and from school is not only tiring and time consuming, but can also be dangerous. Thus it is no surprise that attendance and enrollment rates in rural Africa are considerably below acceptable levels.
World Bicycle Relief (WBR) has been implementing a large scale pilot program (50,000 bicycles over 500 schools) in rural Sub-Saharan Africa, which demonstrates that a simple bicycle, designed for the tough roads and heavy loads of rural Africa, can help improve access, attendance, and academic performance. In the past 18 months, over 12,000 bicycles have been distributed in a “study to own” model requiring students to achieve certain attendance levels or surrender the bicycle to the school. The early results are incredibly positive: attendance rates have been rising from around 65% to nearly 90%. It is undeniable that transport is a critical part of any comprehensive program to give every student access to an education.
How does the program work?
Local community groups of teachers, parents, community leaders, and government representatives are assembled in rural communities, which the Ministries of Education in Zambia and Zimbabwe have selected as in greatest need due to distances to schools. These groups are given clear metrics to determine which students receive bicycles. They are also sensitized to the program’s bias towards female students (70% of bicycle recipients are girls) and are put in charge of selecting local individuals to be trained as field mechanics. These community groups are empowered to make decisions and take ownership of the process. The field mechanics are given business and bicycle repair/maintenance training, bicycle tools, and uniforms – these micro-enterprises are critical to keeping the bicycles on the road and the supply chain of spare parts running. To ensure that the bicycles are used by the students to go to school, attendance is tracked for all students in the program. After successfully attending school for 2 years, students can claim ownership of the bicycles. This “study-to-own” model ensures that program objectives are achieved and also prevents the dependency issues of just dumping bicycles into a community.
How is this bike program different?
Africa is plagued by the combination of extremely poor quality bicycles and used Western bicycles that have been “donated” to Africa. Neither of these bicycles are suitable for the roads and loads of rural Africa, and often, they are exclusively single-sized male frames (not at all acceptable for students, particularly girl students). Importantly, used Western bikes are particularly problematic in the rural context as spare parts are non-existent and they are not built for the local road conditions, so even basic repairs are impossible and thus ensure their life span are short.
WBR bicycles are assembled in local assembly facilities (Lusaka, Zambia; Harare, Zimbabwe; Kisumu, Kenya) and are designed to be compatible with local parts. Additionally, the steel-framed bikes can withstand loads in excess of 100kgs and different models are built to accommodate girls and small children.
Why is the program biased towards girls?
For cultural and safety reasons, drop-out rates of female students are markedly higher than boys in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Since female students commonly bear the bulk of household chores, parents often consider long school commutes and school attendance to be an extra burden on the household. With the ability to save on transport time and spend more time at home, parents are more likely to let their girls attend school.
Additionally, the long distances between homes and schools unfairly expose girls to dangers on the journeys to and from school. And a bicycle allows girls to travel during daylight instead of pre-sunrise or at dusk and allows them to ride in groups, both critical improvements over walking to school.