The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami left thousands of people stranded, with ruined infrastructure putting basic needs-health care, school, building materials–out of reach. So bicycle-components manufacturer SRAM Corporation founded World Bicycle Relief, and, through partnerships with aid organizations, brought more than 24,000 bicycles to people in Sri Lanka.
The organization has since expanded its bike-giving to Africa, where the bikes are used by kids to get to school, entrepreneurs to bring goods to markets, and health care workers who visit patients on two wheels. Producers, too, are local and assemble all the bicycles in factories in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa, and mechanics trained by the organization fix bikes wherever problems pop up.
Luckily, problems popping up isn’t a common problem. That’s thanks to World Bicycle Relief’s Buffalo Bike. At first, the cycle doesn’t look like anything special: Other than a dip in the top tube, it looks like any flea-market cruiser. The secrets to the bike’s power as a tool for economic and social change are subtle. Take the odd top tube, for instance. The shape makes a single bike comfortable for people of different heights, and it allows women to ride it in dresses. The frame of the bike is made of 16-gauge steel, creating a strong–and heavy, at 55 pounds–ride. “It’s less of a bike and more of a truck,” says COO Michael Collins, “and is built to last with no maintenance for more than five years.” Hence the sealed-off coaster brake, which, hidden in the rear hub, is hardly different from the one you used as a kid–except for how well it’s shielded from dirt and water.
Another key to the bicycle, Collins says, is that all its parts are compatible with local parts. So if a spoke snaps, a local replacement will fit. “If we just shipped over Western bikes,” he says, “the local parts wouldn’t fit.”
In the last year, individual people–farmers, for instance–started requesting the bikes. So World Bicycle Relief began selling them. That’s good for both the organization and for Africa’s economy, says Collins. “It shows that Africa is a viable consumer market for good, solid products.”