Moscow, Idaho’s Village Bicycle Project is on the Cutting Edge of Two-Wheel Economic Development
One of the best programs in bicycle-related economic development operates right here in the Inland Northwest. The Palouse Clearwater Environmental Institute, in Moscow, Idaho operates the Village Bicycles Project. This program has been shipping bikes to Ghana for almost a decade. David Peckham, Director of VBP, took a moment for an interview with OTM this summer while administering the program in Ghana. He has a unique perspective about the global economy and what a functioning bike means to the average African villager.
How did PCEI, a group founded in response to regional concerns about nuclear energy, get into shipping bicycles to Ghana?
PCEI’s mission is about involving local citizens in decisions to protect the environment, and after Hanford closed and the downwind threat had abated, PCEI got involved in stream restoration and transportation issues. Bicycles are an important part of the solution to congestion, pollution, energy crises, and climate change. When this local project to reuse bikes overseas came up, PCEI took it on.
How old is VBP? What lessons have you learned since the program began, and how have you incorporated them in to making VBP more effective?
The phrasing of the question seems to imply that we started with a set idea. VBP started in 1999 when I went to Ghana to study the bicycle environment. Several years earlier the government had removed import duties on bikes and I wanted to see how that had impacted cycling, and if there was anything I could do to help. So in a way, it has all been lessons. Look for the problems, and look for ways that you can address them. Early on I was working many different angles, and I wanted to go with what was easiest, most effective and most fun. I abandoned efforts to build local cargo racks, because it wasn’t taking off. I also gave up on getting bikes to the police cause they were a difficult group to work with. After a nightmare experience retailing the first shipment, I turned that over to Ghanaians.
I really wanted to do an outreach with farmers. I made contact with Peace Corps, and that part has really done well. Last year we trained about 850 people in bike repair basics, each receiving a discounted bike, and this year there will be twice that many. Every step of the way there are lessons, and today we’re running into some logistical obstacles. Our approach to development-look for the problem, then try solutions- is advocated in a recent book by long time development economist insider William Easterly [White Man’s Burden, now in paperback-ed.]. He says that the current mainstream approach to development-a multi-lateral master plan backed by big money-is top heavy, disconnected from the people it is supposed to help and not lifting the poor out of poverty.
Can you give an example of how donated bikes have made a difference in the lives of those who’ve received them?
It blows my mind. Last week we went to Songornya, where we did programs in 2005 and again two months ago. 160 bikes. It’s the place where Ayamye was filmed. It’s a group of three villages along a terrible rough road about two miles from the main road and four miles from the main town. Transport to the main road is expensive and infrequent. People said that at times they’d see someone waiting for a ride as they biked out, and two hours later upon their return that same person would still be sitting there, waiting for the ride. One family is hauling bread from the town by bike, and the two dollars transport fee is now profit, (national per capita income is a dollar a day). A health worker is saving about an hour a day he used to spend walking or waiting for a ride, and $600 a year. In another village where we got bikes to rural health care workers, people are delivering health education, medicines, even patients by bike.
School kids are getting to school in time and not exhausted from a three-mile walk. A furniture maker now has a wider customer base, as he can easily travel to a much wider radius from his home. I’ve heard probably a hundred stories from people, and its kind of a no-brainer. If someone who has to walk everywhere suddenly gets a bike, they are going to be more mobile and save lots of time.
Additionally, a crucial component of the program is the maintenance education. People seemed to think that there was something mysterious about bike repair, and they had no concept of preventative maintenance. We’re making sense to many of them; they are listening to their bikes, and keeping them up. I’ve been tweaking the curriculum for years to make the workshop as straightforward and simple as possible.
Do Ghanans view cycling differently than Americans do?
We think of bikes as alternatives to driving, while for most Africans bikes are alternatives to walking. In an African village, owning a bike is more of a status symbol than car ownership is in the US, because in most parts of the US everyone has a car. In many African villages, only a few even have bicycles. We have seen that owning a bike in Africa usually means poverty reduction, because either you have more time to be productive or you’re saving money you once spent on transit.
You are in Ghana right now. Any new developments there that have affected how you run the program?
I’d have to say that there’s a delayed effect going on. Now we are trying to incorporate changes that caught our attention months ago. A bit more than a year ago we started exclusive women’s programs. We found out that most of the women who didn’t know how to ride before the program still don’t, and someone else, usually male, is using her bike. Now we are going to prioritize learning to ride, incorporate riding skills at the start. Women’s’ workshops may become two days, instead of the one day program we have been doing. It’s in flux. We may split it into two tracks, one for riders, one for non riders.
This trip I’m seeing a lot of opportunity coming our way, but we simply don’t have the infrastructure to follow through. Maybe by the time of my next visit…
How is the program funded?
We are funded mostly by private donations and a few small foundations. Some of our bike donors pay part of the shipping costs, and that becomes a donation to fund programs. I’m a full-time volunteer, so we’re doing this on $25,000 a year.
There are many in the U.S. who could benefit from a functioning bicycle. With all the effort aimed at trans porting them overseas, why not just try to place donated bikes with the less fortunate in inner-city America?
Many of our bike donors do just that, but they have so many more bikes donated than they can turn around in the community that they can send us, and others, 450 at a time. Bikes Not Bombs in Boston, Bike Works in Seattle, Working Bikes Cooperative in Chicago, are all sending us their surplus bikes. The number of unwanted bikes gathering dust in the rich countries is staggering. In Moscow, without really trying, we collect 400 bikes a year.
Are you the only organization in the U.S. sending bikes to Africa?
Heavens no. I know of three other organizations sending to other groups in Ghana alone, and there are probably hundreds of others sending bikes to Ghana. Most however, are commercial enterprises. I know of several other non-profits who are doing outreach as VBP is, in other parts of Africa.
What do you think of the Kona/Bicycling Magazine Africa Bike project?
Part humanitarian aid, part media stunt, wholly unsustainable. I wish I had a chance to finish reading the story before commenting, so my facts may be a bit sketchy. The way I recall it, they pretty much dropped the bikes off. There was no study of access to repair or spare parts, no repair training, some of the bikes ended up locked up by people in authority.
Many in the rich countries think that the way to help the poor world is to give stuff away, but that is all wrong. If we come in, give it away, and leave then we can have this feel good thing, but it is so irresponsible. We think we are operating in a vacuum, “Oh lets give them some bicycles.” It fosters dependency, it ignores and hurts those who are already there, somehow selling and repairing bicycles. Those who are already working with bikes, managing somehow, are the link to sustainability. They will still be there when we’re gone. It is essential that we work with them and help them do their work better.
Do you have any thoughts on long-term transportation solutions for Ghana? Will there ever be a native bike manufacturing industry there?
Ghana has very recently struck oil, but having oil is no longer a solution to transport problems. Nigeria has plenty of oil, but 70 % of the people, that’s 100 million people, live on less than $2 a day. In this age of climate change, oil wars, and for Ghana, a crippling imbalance of payments, appalling traffic congestion, inadequate public transit, and widespread poverty, bicycles should be a significant part of transportation planning. But, the Ghana government, like so many poor countries, really has very little control over its economy or development. Power is in the hands of the IMF, World Bank, and holders of external debt, who dictate the trends of development, which favor corporate globalization. I think ‘globalization’ is a warm fuzzy straightjacket to force everyone in the world into the trade economy. Traditional communities are forced into export-oriented production at the expense of growing food, so they must buy imported food, profiting huge companies far, far away. It is about corporate power at the expense of local economic self-determination.
Will there ever be bike production in Ghana?
Current trends suggest that Chinese companies may locate in Ghana for cheap labor to work for the export market. Maybe this means bike factories may one day locate here, but not to the benefit of Ghana. Will the bike factory workers be able to afford their own bicycle? In a totally different twist, someone from the US recently introduced a bamboo frame bike, that with the right combination of a good product, skillful development and some luck, could challenge the prevalent paradigm. [See http://www.calfeedesign.com- ed.] The growing used bike market in Ghana is today undermining demand for the junky new Chinese and Indian bikes. More and more people are experiencing a better ride for their money in the used European and North American bikes than the shiny junk that’s been the staple offering for decades.
What kind of support does VBP receive from folks in Moscow?
The core of VBP’s support is from Moscow area folks. Five of our eleven biggest financial donors are local. We’ve probably generated more than 1000 bikes locally for shipment, which is pretty amazing for our population. That is out of 20,000 bikes total shipped.
How can readers get involved with supporting VBP? When will the next container loading happen in Moscow?
There’s lots of ways to get involved. There’s administrative work (the boring but essential stuff), program volunteers in Ghana, board membership, helping locate, collect, deliver and prepare bikes for shipment. Groups of us in Moscow prep bikes on a sort-of regular basis, its fun-o.
We’re looking at loading a container in Moscow on Saturday September 22. It is so expensive to get a container there and back, that we have to load while the driver sits and waits, at $50 an hour. So it’ll have to be quick and efficient, well organized, and a big party. We want to have a band play, food and drink, and a bike parade/escort when the truck leaves. We hope the driver has a sense of humor, fun and adventure!
To find out more about the Village Bicycle Project go to: http://www.pcei.org/vbp
To learn about the Village Bicycle Project
documentary film go to: http://www.ayamye.org
Ayamye: The Village Bicycle Project Film Comes to Spokane
See Ayamye the Award-Winning Film about the Village Bicycle Project. Out There Monthly is proud to bring to Spokane this new film, for one of its only non-film festival screenings this year. The film documents the story of bringing used bicycles to Ghana and will be shown at the Magic Lantern Theatre at 25 W. Main in downtown Spokane on Saturday, September 15 at 7PM. Tickets are $7 with proceeds to benefit the Village Bicycle Project. According to Dirt Rag magazine: “Ayamye follows the lives of four community members in an African village that receive bikes, over the course of one year. The film tells the story of the determined and resourceful people of the rural village, in a dramatic look at how lack of transportation can impact the education, health and livelihood of their community.” The film, created by Eric Matthies and Tricia Todd, is 50 minutes long and will be followed by a presentation by Dave Peckham, Director of the Village Bicycle Project on “Bike Repair in the African Bush”, highlighting some of the DIY techniques people use to repair bikes when resources are next to nothing. Don’t miss it. Seating is limited. Call OTM at (509) 534-3347 for more information.