Published on October 21st, 2013 | by Charu Suri7
Reducing the Cycle of Poverty: Wheels of Change in Namibia
According to Dan Austin, founder of adventure company Austin-Lehman adventures, “bikes are a dime a dozen to people living in the United States.” But for residents of Namibia who have long, winding dusty roads and no public transportation, they’re catnip.
To help me get the bigger picture, Austin starts at the very beginning. About four years ago, Austin had a fleet of high quality mountain bikes that were too good to toss, too well-worn to use on his tours. He looked at philanthropy opportunities and found Michael Linke’s Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN), a non-profit in Namibia dedicated to providing commuter-style bikes to locals for various purposes.
Austin put together a 40-foot shipping container crammed with bikes, and Linke picked a Namibian village to deliver the wheeled goods. Linke trained the locals and worked with the different shops to help them get going. Recognizing the great need for the twin combination of transportation and training in Namibia, Austin partnered with Linke to create Wheels of Change, to eliminate the cycle of poverty in Namibia.
Now Austin and Linke have started to teach the locals to offer bike tours, which are flourishing.
Wheels of Change bike recipients in Namibia become entrepreneurs and improve their mechanical skills in the process
“Often these (tours) are the first jobs they’ve ever had,” says Austin about the Namibian locals hungry for entrepreneurial skills. Some locals have sold all the repaired bikes in a month to others who have a growing need for them.
Wheels of Change International (WOC International) became an outcome of Wheels of Change, and this organization will address the needs of Africa and other cities in need. 100% of all profits are invested in the community, thereby making the entire process of change a cumulative one.
Namibians are very proud of their country, and want to preserve their culture, adds Austin, who says about 43% of the country’s land is protected. “Going to places like Sabi Sabi (in South Africa) is a bit of a joke,” he laughs, referring to the pampered lodges with lions. “Here, the safari is the real, raw deal.” Namibia also holds the record for the largest concentration of black rhino in Africa, which explains in part the recent boom in tourism.
If You Bike It, They Will Graduate
Austin’s success with Wheels of Change has led to many successes in the region, including providing youngsters with the tools to start their own business, as well as helping kids finish high school simply because they have access to a bike to get to classes. “The school might be 7 km from the village,” says Austin, who notes that 30% of their bikes go towards home healthcare workers because these are also AIDS epidemic regions.
Wheels of Change is not the only organization focusing on two wheels to make a difference. World Bicycle Relief too looks at the bicycle as “an engine for economic and cultural development.” The organization has donated over 161, 000 bikes in African countries like Angola, Botswana, Kenya and Malawi, and its mission too is to provide mobility as a tool for education, market access, health and relief. But World Bicycle Relief, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, has over 100 worldwide employees, plus fundraisers. Wheels of Change has a leaner execution team.
Part of the team includes Bobcat lineman Andy Austin, a 22-year old Montana State University student, and Austin’s son. A psychology major, he is also the organization’s marketing and development head, and determined to make a difference. Austin remembers the look on the Namibians’ faces when they opened their first 40-foot-long 8-foot-high container of bikes.
“All the women were wearing traditional long dresses,” says Andy Austin in an interview with his Montana school newspaper. “We spent the whole first day teaching these people how to ride a bike, and it was an absolute blast. The looks on their faces when they first started riding were priceless.”
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter whether a large non-profit or just two people in the world decide to send bikes to this part of the world: the recipients don’t care how the bikes get there, as long as they get there.
Austin-Lehman provides tours to Namibia, and encourages locals to give bike trips using the same bikes they donate to Wheels of Change.