Bikes for the World: Going Places
Have you ever seriously considered how you would get to school, work, or the grocery store without a car or public transportation? Would you walk? You could ride your bike… but what if you couldn’t afford one?
For many people living in developing countries, this problem is one that they must face daily. Luckily, Keith Oberg and Bikes for the World are working to create a solution.
Keith realized the importance of reliable transportation when he worked in Central America in the ‘80s, where he was involved in a number of bike efforts, including Bikes Not Bombs. “I saw people walking miles to get where they needed to be, and realized that bikes were an affordable option that really made a difference in people’s productivity,” he said.
Keith realized that many people in the U.S. had bikes that were sitting unused in their garages and homes—bikes that could be put to use by those who needed them.
When he returned to the DC area, Keith started collecting bikes and started Bikes for the World in 2005. BfW’s first independent shipment occurred in April 2005, to Sri Lanka, Central America, and Ghana. More than 5,000 bikes were sent overseas. Since then, the organization has broadened in both size and scope.
BfW’s mission is to “make quality used bicycles and parts affordable and available to lower income people and select institutions in developing countries, to enhance their lives and livelihoods through better transport.”
At first, the organization was sponsored under the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. It became a nonprofit in 2011. Bikes for the World now operates as the nation’s largest bike reuse program.
“Every time you dispatch a container, you learn and hear stories about what has helped certain partners,” Oberg said. “For example, in Panama bikes are sent to the Goodwill there, which provides vocational and educational training for people with special needs—they help fix up the bikes and then sell them at Goodwill. In the Philippines, bikes are given to kids to incentivize them to stay in school and help them get there. In this instance, the schools bought in to the program, and the kids get the bikes when they graduate.”
BfW’s operating model is simple, yet effective: The organization crowd sources bikes and bike part donations from individuals, bike shops, and churches across the DMV, breaks them down, and packs them into shipping containers that travel across the globe. The bikes are received by community partners in various countries, who ensure that the bikes make their way to those who need them most at a low cost.
Allowing international community partners to sell the bikes at an affordable price lets them reinvest the proceeds they receive in their own community. Since 2005, BfW has shipped more than 14,000 bicycles toFINCA Costa Rica, a micro business support organization, which helps low-income individuals achieve financial autonomy. FINCA then distributes the bikes to other associations in the country, and the proceeds are reinvested in the credit enterprise
“Costa Rica is a great example of how a community organized itself to receive the container and divide the bikes amongst themselves,” Keith said.
Bikes for the World has an impact beyond affordable transportation in the communities it partners with. Re-assembling and reconditioning the bicycles also creates jobs in the receiving country, and can function as a training program. Additionally, bikes can be converted to capital (Costa Rica) or used as a method of getting an education by providing a way to get to school. Finally, BfW helps the environment by removing bikes from the landfill cycle and also promoting a sustainable and environmentally ethical method of transit.
In addition to its main focus on international partners, BfW also works with local organizations. One of those organizations is Gearin’ Up Bicycles, a bike shop in DC founded in 2002 that trains youth to fix up and refurbish old bikes.
With only four full-time employees, BfW relies heavily on the efforts and manpower of its volunteers, who come out to prep bikes or load containers. Volunteers can also sponsor their own bike collections to help the organization.
“I’m encouraged by the amount of people out there who want to give back and make a contribution, showing up time after time to do work that isn’t always a ton of fun, and sometimes is dirty,” said Jim Mitchell, who has been volunteering with Bikes for the World for nearly a decade. “People really enjoy the camaraderie and they want to give back where they can, and show an appreciation for the level of comfort we have in the States.”
As of the end of 2015, Bikes for the World has donated more than 111,000 bikes and has no plans to stop anytime soon. Plans for the future include building on their relationships with community partners, getting even more donations, and expanding nationally across the United States.