Manufacturing bikes for Uganda’s poor

Julian Rochlitz is a student at the University of Eichstatt-Ingolstadt, Germany. He is studying Human Geography with a special focus on the (international) organization of economic activities and development issues. In October 2011, he travelled to Uganda with fellow students to learn about these issues in real life.

What is taken for granted in industrial societies can be hard to achieve for poor people in developing countries. One of these things is mobility and transportation. While for us in the Global North, it's just normal to have a car to move goods easily or get around on affordable, scheduled public transportation, in regions like rural Africa, the majority of people do not have such possibilities.

In October last year, I travelled to Uganda for a field trip, together with 16 other students and 2 lecturers. During this journey we learnt a lot about development issues, especially in the interrelated fields of social and economic poverty, energy security, and international economic entanglements. It was impressive to see how people are making a living there and cope with often difficult situations. In total, I had the feeling that we, as white foreigners, were always treated in an open-minded and friendly manner.

Among other projects, we visited the Bicycle Sponsorship Project and Workshop (BSPW). Located in the city of Jinja, just off the shore of Lake Victoria and near the source of the Nile, this project addresses several issues for Uganda's poor people, especially those who live in rural areas.

Supported by the German NGO Youth Aid East Africa, BSPW's core activity is to manufacture bikes and make them available to those with special needs, e.g. widows, orphans, students, and young people in general. For these people, using a bike is a huge step forward in economics, time and effort. It means they don't have to carry goods by foot. Thus, a simple, ‘low-tech' device facilitates increased access to markets. Even more so as bikes produced by BSPW are especially designed to carry heavy loads. Financial support is from sponsorships, i.e. donors can finance production of a whole bike for 90 € (about US$ 120), or part of one.

In addition to conventional bicycles, the project makes use of versatile possibilities of this mode of transport, including bike ambulances and trikes for disabled persons, with propulsion moved with one's arms. They also make solar cookers and other energy efficient stoves that, with the power of the tropical sun, literally light a fire in seconds. More important, such cookers reduce the need for scarce wood and make women's walks for collecting it shorter. Also of importance, the workshops provide employment and technical training for young people.

After a tour, we were generously invited for fruit, beverages, and pastries. Even though local people had very little, the organization was generous to share with guests. As visitors, we got to meet employees and learn about their lives. Moreover, we were lucky to test these great bikes.

Our group was highly impressed by the work of this project. We were humbled by the beauty of this simple, yet valuable piece of equipment. The bicycle, mainly a device used for sports and fun for us, is a lifeline for survival and a means for economic opportunity for low income people in rural Africa. The social value, when used as an ambulance, to enable disabled persons lead more independent lives, and to be kind to the environment makes it a true triple bottom line champion.


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