Up from poverty in Namibia

A new road out of serfdom

In Namibia, a simple bike can make a big difference.
In Namibia, a simple bike can make a big difference.

I've just read the annual "Urban Ingenuity" magazine in the Financial Times (July 24), which spotlights the most creative innovations to improve global urban life. The most "inspiring" concept in this issue was the creation of a network of bicycle repair shops in Namibia that has "helped marginalized people return to the employment mainstream."

The inspiring story starts with a young woman named Mary (a pseudonym), who six years ago was scraping a living as an HIV-positive sex worker. She's chatting with a customer who has just brought in a bike to see how much it would cost to repair. Her "office" is a converted shipping container located in a dusty car park in Katakura, a shantytown on the outskirts of Namibia's capital Windhoek. Inside are donated bicycles awaiting renovation and sale. Outside Mary has posted a price list for eggs and other snacks she is selling.

In the six years since she abandoned sex work, Mary has picked up basic business skills, learned how to repair bikes, and operated a small business that provides employment to marginalized people while it also earns a surplus to fund social projects. Mary's modest salary helps support a brother and sister.

Kicking drugs and alcohol

Another similar outlet in Windhoek as well as more than 30 across the country is known as the Bicycle Empowerment Network, an expanding chain of bike shops-in-a-box. This outfit has tapped Western donations "to create local enterprises designed to be sustainable, aid social projects and promote environmentally friendly and affordable transport."

A local community organization supervises each outlet. For example, in Soweto six former sex workers seeking a new way of life joined a church in 2006 to kick their drug and alcohol habits and formed a faith-based group called the King's Daughters. In 2009 the Bicycle Empowerment Network offered them one of its shops. Surplus income enabled the King's Daughters to fund support groups and nutrition programs for families with HIV, pay school fees for children and underwrite a jewelry workshop. So far 68 people have benefitted.

As their reputation grew, the King's Daughters were able to negotiate free spaces to use for drug and alcohol rehab. The U.S. Embassy and other governments kicked in more support.

Inspiration in weeds

An Aussie named Michael Linke launched the bike network after he found an old bike chained up in a bunch of weeds in Hamburg. With that epiphany, he started working for a charity that shipped donated bikes to developing countries. Linke focused his ideal by working for a similar group in London, cleverly called Re-Cycle. Before he knew it, he was delivering abandoned bikes for them.

Linke received e-mail messages from health care workers in Namibia, asking for supplies. Soon he was in Windhoek. It was a puzzle: The country suffered from a shortage of people with management skills. So Linke set out to provide them.

At first he concentrated on providing bikes to health workers, so they could reach distant patients. He modified some bikes as pedal-powered ambulances to reach villages far from main roads or clinics. Namibia's rough road network wreaked hell on the tires, so he urged donors to send bikes with mountain tires. Last year Linke received more than 7,000 from Canada, Australia, and Europe.

Peddling lunches, too

Ultimately he realized: The hardest thing to teach is not how to fix a bike but how to run a business. That's when he perceived the critical importance of groups like the King's Daughters in advising on business management. As a result, Bike Empowerment Network outlets have spun off other businesses, such as peddling lunches or selling biomass "bush bricks."

We hear a great deal about the difficulty of helping poor developing countries modernize themselves. But as the Financial Times demonstrates, some things are easier in the age of high-tech communication— such as spreading and promoting good grass-roots ideas. As long as idealists like Michael Linke and his ilk proliferate, the future looks hopeful, even to an octogenarian like me.

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