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CAPE TOWN, May 27 2011 (IPS) - “Politicians may tell us that bicycles are a sign that we are not advancing,” says Patrick Kayemba, managing director of the First African Bicycle Information Organization in Uganda, “but we ourselves have seen that cycling is a socio-economic tool. It works now – we don’t have to wait for someone to rescue us with better public transport, better this, or better that…”
“A bicycle in Africa means access,” Kayemba told an international cycling planning conference audience in Seville, Spain in March 2011. “You have a bicycle, you have access to income, clean water, social services, different places of work, a means to carry goods,” he said. “It is not for leisure, it is not for reducing weight – here, a bike is life.”
Bicycles are expensive commodities, however, so Kayemba’s organisation operates a bicycle micro-credit scheme in Uganda as well as a bicycle boda boda savings scheme. (Boda boda also refers to motorcycle taxis – but enterprising Ugandans also use pedal-powered two-wheelers, with a pillow on the carrier for the passenger’s comfort.)
“It is usual for boda bodas not to be owned by the drivers,” says Kayemba, “and they have to give more than a quarter of their earnings to the owner. This means a struggle with long hours to make a living – but our savings scheme helps drivers lose their dependence on the owner.”
Like Ugandans, most Namibian cyclists also rely on affordable, refurbished second-hand bicycles, donated by international agencies and distributed via local organisations.
Before the advent of the BEC network (advancing steadily since 2006), there were only two reasonably well-stocked bicycle shops in Namibia, says Michael Linke. Of course this made cycling, and its associated benefits, somewhat inaccessible.
Cycling changing lives
Linke tells the story of Isabella Thipungu, who lives in her family’s village, eight kilometres from the town of Divundu in Namibia’s Kavango region. Because of the distance, she used to live in the school hostel in Divundu, and only saw her family on weekends. Since she bought a bike at Makveto Bicycle shop, a BEC near her home, she has moved back to her family home and commutes every day in a fraction of the time it would take to walk. Before Makveto started, Isabella’s nearest bike shop was 250 km away, says Linke.
There’s no doubt that for utility cyclists in much of Africa (people who cycle as a means of transport), cycling is not a step backward but a step forward. And as Gil Penalosa, international liveable cities consultant, points out, Copenhagen and Amsterdam are among the wealthiest cities in the world, and they have the highest urban cycling rates. In these cities, bicycle transport has neither “loser” nor “elite” status; it’s simply the cheapest and most convenient way in which to get around.
As Cape Town commuter Edward Zozi explains, he rides because “I save a lot of money. Five hundred rand per month (80 dollars). Before, I used a (minibus) taxi… each and every day. Now I’m saving all that.”
Commuter William Jim, in his 50s, has been riding bicycles for “maybe five years,” he says. “Before that I was using taxis. But the taxis were too expensive…”
Similar success stories can be found in Malawi, Zambia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Zimbabwe: bicycles have an immediate cost-saving, life-enhancing and poverty-reducing impact on the lives of everyone who rides them.
There are also shared challenges. The roads are dangerous, authorities don’t take the needs of bicycle commuters into account, and new bicycles are priced beyond the pocket of those who need them.
“More people want to ride, but without more bicycles, and the right bicycles, it’s difficult,” Kayemba told Velo-City Sevilla delegates in March. “We need new technologies, durable, heavy-duty bikes. And we need fashionable bicycles also to come to Africa, not only the ones people don’t want anymore.”
“This would create a create a healthy bicycle market in Africa that would provide numerous benefits to people, businesses and governments.”
“I don’t know why it has taken us so long,” says Kayemba. And all that remains is for governments to see that bicycle transport isn’t just ‘while we wait for enough money to buy a car to take the bus’. Bicycles are for now. For good.”
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