Remembering The Tsunami, 55,000 Bicycles Later

Five years ago, perhaps like you, I was riveted by the news of devastation in Indonesia. The horror wrought by the tsunami was hard to grasp, but hit me as no other natural disaster had before. Watching the images over and over on TV, I thought how helpful it would be if some of those left homeless had access to a bicycle -- even temporarily -- to help get their lives back on track.

An avid cyclist, I am familiar with the liberating power of a bicycle. And I'm an entrepreneur whose business, with vendors and clients around the globe, manufactures bicycle components. With an idea of what mobility might mean to tsunami victims and relief workers, it felt strangely within my reach to help.

For most Americans, a bicycle is recreational. To many more around the world, a bicycle is an inexpensive, sustainable form of mobility, when mobility can mean the difference between seeing a doctor, getting to school, or making a living - or not. Affordable, reliable mobility is no doubt one of the most valuable but unrecognized tools of relief and development work.

My wife and I flew to Sri Lanka days after the tsunami struck. Once on the ground, we were able to source the frames and parts necessary to build sturdy bikes capable of handling rugged terrain and heavy loads. In the process, we forged partnerships with relief organizations already up-and-running, making the introduction of bikes into existing relief efforts efficient and seamless. We also trained local workers to assemble and maintain the bikes, creating jobs in the process. At the end of 18 months, we had distributed 24,400 bicycles to carefully selected men, women, and children most severely affected by the disaster.

Very quickly we saw the power of the bike to impact lives. One man, a fisherman who had lost his boat and supplies in the tsunami, was able to modify his business and used the bike to sell vegetables and fish door-to-door. Plus, he was elated to be able to bring his daughter to school on the way. A health inspector who received a bicycle could travel four times the distance than possible on foot, visiting more patients and distributing more supplies. More than 8,000 of the bikes went to schoolchildren, and studies showed that most would carry their siblings or friends on the back carrier.

A bicycle can travel four times the distance and offers five times the carrying capacity as foot travel. With the extra time people were afforded with the bike, and in some cases the money not spent on public transportation, magical things occurred. People were able to expand their businesses, take on additional work, maintain their health, or stay in school. One representative of World Vision, a partner organization, told us that the bicycle was offering something beyond relief and approaching development. It started to become clear that the model we had built had huge potential beyond disaster relief.

We left Sri Lanka inspired to build on the impact we had made in Indonesia with our bikes. Our successful partnership with World Vision led us to create an organization -- World Bicycle Relief -- and to join them in a program they were running for HIV/AIDS caregivers in Zambia. We established a presence in that country and distributed 23,000 bicycles via that health care program, and thousands more through micro-finance initiatives.

In June of 2009, World Bicycle Relief launched an educational initiative that will distribute 50,000 bicycles to schoolchildren (70% girls) and teachers in Zambia's neediest rural districts. Our programs have been so successful that our partners are asking for more bikes to serve more people, and we're expanding our programs to Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

We estimate that presently there are only 15 million bicycles shipped into Africa each year, and most of them don't meet the end user's needs because they're not appropriate for the local terrain and don't hold up under punishing conditions. With a population of 800 million, the potential to impact poverty - and the intermingled problems of healthcare, education, and economic development that contribute to it - by providing basic transportation with bicycles is huge. By our gauge, the introduction in Africa of between 50 and 80 million sturdy, culturally appropriate bicycles would make a serious dent in fighting poverty.

If you are reading this, it is likely that your transportation problems center around traffic congestion, train schedules, or finding a parking spot when you're shopping. During this holiday season, we invite you to reimagine the potential of a shiny new bike, and the role it can play in changing lives across the globe.