Saturday, 27 July 2013

From Tiny Acorns...

Mighty oaks do grow! I’ve just been reading for the first time the British business daily,”Financial Times”’s annual “Urban Ingenuity” magazine (July 24, 2013)in which it awards commendations for the most creative innovations to improve global urban life. The most “inspiring” concept in this issue was the creation of a network of bicycle repair shops in Namibia which has “helped marginalized people return to the employment mainstream.” (Andrew Jack, “Back on Track”, pp. 8-11.)

The inspiring story starts with a young woman named Mary (a pseudonym) who six years ago was scraping a living as an HIV-positive sex worker. She’s chatting with a customer who has just brought in a bike to see how much it would cost to repair.  Her “office” is a converted shipping container located in a dusty car park in the Soweto district of Katakura, a shanty town on the outskirts of Namibia’s capital Windhoek. Inside are donated bicycles awaiting renovation and sale. Outside she has posted a price list for eggs and other snacks she is selling!

In the six years since she abandoned sex work, she has picked up basic business skills, learned how to repair bikes, and run a small business that provides employment to marginalised people as well as earn a surplus to fund social projects. Her modest salary helps support a brother and sister.

Another similar outlet in Windhoek as well as more than 30 across the country is known as the  Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN!) an expanding chain of bike shops-in-a- box. This outfit has tapped western donations “to create local enterprises designed to be sustainable, aid social projects and promote environmentally friendly and affordable transport.” (P. 9.)

A local community organization supervises each outlet. For example in Soweto a faith-based group called the King’s Daughters formed by six former sex workers seeking a new way of life joined the church in 2006, to kick the drug and alcohol habits that emprisoned them. In 2009 BEN offered them one of its shops. Surplus income enabled the King’s Daughters to fund support groups and nutrition programs for families with HIV, pay school fees for children and underwrite a jewelry workshop. 68 people so far have profited!

As its reputation grew, they were able to negotiate free places drugs and alcohol rehab. The US Embassy and other government kicked in more support. BEN’s founder, an Aussie named Michael Linke, enthused over how his group was doing good better and better—stopping blood pressure medication because cycle riding kept A BENNIE fit, finding another selling fresh meat with a BEN bike. Linke had always been interested in bikes—but not for sociological solutions. But in Hamburg, he found an old bike chained up in a bunch of weeds. He thought there must be a better fate. He started working for a charity shipping donated bikes to developing countries! He focused his ideal working for a similar group in London, cleverly called Re-Cycle. Before he knew it he was delivering abandoned bikes for them.

He received e-mail from health care workers in Namibia, asking for supplies. Soon he was in Windhoek. It was a puzzle. There wasn’t enough management skills. So he set out to provide them. At first he concentrated on providing health workers with bikes to reach far away patients. He modified some bikes as pedal-powered ambulances to reach villages far from main roads or clinics. Namibia’s rough road wreaked hell on the tires so he urged donors to send bikes with mountain tires. Last year he received more than 7000 from Canada, Australia, and Europe.

He finally also realized: The hardest thing to teach is not how to fix a bike but how to run a business! Then he realized how important were groups like the King’s Daughters in advising on business management. BEN outlets have concentrated on spin-off businesses, such as peddling lunches or selling biomass “bush bricks”. It is clear that no matter how difficult it is to help poor developing countries modernize themselves, as long as there are idealists like Michael Linke and his ilk, the future looks hopeful. And Business Journalism can take pride in so creatively publishing the good news.

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review. 

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