Clarisse and Michael Linke co-founded the Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) to train and equip women in Namibia to be bicycle mechanics and instructors. This positions the women to be local transport technology experts, a traditional male role, and gives them access to income, affordable transport, and new skills.
When Michael Linke came to Africa in 2004, his main interest as a bicycling advocate was to address transportation challenges for HIV/AIDS health care workers. He planned to dedicate six months to setting up an organization to distribute bicycles to the health worker sector.
Six years later, Michael and and Clarisse are still living in Namibia and working strategically to expand this transport network to other African nations. Namibia has one of the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rates, estimated at 20 percent of the total population.
Namibia's shortage of healthcare professionals further hinders its health system’s ability to cope with people living with HIV/AIDs-related illnesses. Rural communities are even more affected because a lack of transport systems creates another barrier to social and medical service access.
The Bicycling Empowerment Network
works to address these challenges throughout Namibia, providing not only critical transportation for health care volunteers, but also creating a means of generating more income to supplement their meager medical volunteer allowances.
Dozens of grassroots organizations have implemented projects in partnership with the Namibian Ministry of Health, including programs for home-based care (HBC) of people living with HIV/AIDS, and support of orphans and vulnerable children. HBC programs work with health care volunteers to visit clients in their homes, providing counseling, nutrition, hygiene, and medication delivery, as well as assisting them with household chores and providing basic solutions to common needs.
Without transportation options, many of the volunteers had no alternative to walking long distances to visit people infected with HIV/AIDS. The volunteers, many of whom are HIV-positive themselves, work to reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, but also take on the critical task of assisting clients to get to clinics and hospitals, and adhere to their anti-retroviral treatments.
“We live and breathe this project now,” said Michael Linke about BEN, which employs 90 people in 22 Bicycle Empowerment Centers (BEC), that have distributed over 12,000 bicycles, “If I hadn’t been completely naïve, I would have never tried this in the first place. Finding local directors who really wanted to engage with the project was also challenging because I was perceived as an outsider who might be wasting their time.”
There is no solid bicycle manufacturing industry in Africa. Most of bicycle distribution takes place from small supermarkets or general stores that sell bicycles from China.
The Bicycling Empowerment Network in Cape Town provided Linke with initial guidance to begin addressing the mobility needs of Namibian health care workers. “When I started here, we had no track record, and that was a huge barrier,” Linke said. “Almost all of our problems in the early
A BEN bicycle ambulance
days were about money, but this simultaneously forced us to be very creative and enterprising.”
There is no solid bicycle manufacturing industry in Africa. Most of bicycle distribution takes place from small supermarkets or general stores that sell bicycles from China. These stores offer no quality guarantee, and if the bicycle breaks, it has to be shipped to Johannesburg, South Africa for a repair that can take up to three months.
“Our bikes are of higher quality and we offer repair service," Linke said. "We’ve actually picked up a lot of business from Chinese bicycles that break down.
"The starting price for our recycled bicycles is about US $50, which is about half the cost of a new, low-quality bike that is imported from China. We feel that we are filling a gap by offering reliable, high-quality, low-cost bicycles for the Namibian market.”
BEN imports used, donated bicycles in huge shipping containers that hold up to 350 bicycles in partnership with Bicycles for Humanity and several other organizations. The first Namibian shipment in 2006 came from a chapter established in Whistler, Canada.
Bicycles for Humanity has chapters all over North America, including the United States and Canada, as well as chapters in Australia, Tokyo, London, and Germany. Anyone who wants to collect donated bicycles can start their own community chapter, and plan a visit to the BEN sites to see how their bicycles are transforming people’s lives.
The donated bicycles arrive in various states of repair and need to be refurbished. BEN’s trained local bicycle mechanics, including half who are women, go through a quality-control checklist as they fix the bicycle so it can be sold to the public with a guarantee.
When community members decide they want to start a Bicycling Empowerment Center, part of the training BEN offers is a planning session about how to assign starting wages for staff, based on what they think they will earn as the business gets established and builds customers.
“We find that they can earn up to US $130 per month, which is a huge amount compared to their $7 per month volunteer salary, or the subsistence, piecemeal work they would have been doing as a farm laborer,” Linke said. “Now they can start to plan for growth in other aspects of their lives and community, because they know that they will have a steady income.”
Bertha, an HIV-positive volunteer for a Catholic HIV/AIDs charity, received a bicycle through one of BEN’s volunteer programs. She couldn’t afford her medications, and was on the verge of giving up when the opportunity came to receive bicycle mechanics training,
The income Bertha generated as a bicycle mechanic allowed her to purchase cosmetic products, which her daughters sold at their schools to generate their own income stream. “Bertha has gone from a desperate situation to a place where she can afford to take her medication, meet her own needs, and help her daughters to earn an income,” Linke said.
BEN receives text messages from its mechanics, who are not shy to tell them if one of their procedures is not working well. “We provide the resources, training and support, but the real work comes from the people, who have to make a huge commitment to make these centers work,” Linke said. “And we don’t prescribe to the communities how they should invest their profits.”
A Bicycling Empowerment Center, run by Namibians with different physical abilities, decided to use their business profits to build a computer training center as an extension to the bicycle repair shop. Linke believes that without the business experience they developed through the bicycle center, they would have never realized that they possessed the skills to manage a village computer training center.
Linke believes it is vitally important that BEN eventually expand beyond Namibia. He said the mindset of bicycle mechanics shifts when they receive training and become driven to make the centers work. The Linkes plan to expand BEN to Zambia in 2010 with the same community empowerment philosophy that supports villagers so the Linkes can then step away and the centers can manage themselves.