Africa

Bikes get Mozambicans going

Louise Sherwood

Although Africa has seen many bicycle projects come and go an ingenious start-up is putting wheels within the reach of those hamstrung by poverty.

A bicycle provided by Mozambikes has made the life of social worker Florda Salvador Valoi much easier. (M&G)

Bernadete Simião Manjete (48) wheels out her gleaming, green bike and proudly shows it off to the neighbours walking by. She is one of the lucky recipients of a bicycle donated by Mozambique's award-winning company, Mozambikes.

"This belongs to Mama Bernadete," she tells them with a big grin.

Although Africa has seen many bicycle projects come and go, leaving only trails of rusty parts in their wake, founders Lauren Thomas and her fiancé Rui Mesquita believe Mozambikes is different.

"We got the idea for the company back in spring 2009 while we were on a road trip across Mozambique," Thomas said. "We saw people walking long distances with very heavy packages under the burning hot sun and we asked ourselves, 'why don't they use bikes?'

"We discovered that bicycles are not produced locally and the cost to import them is very high, so we came up with the idea of using mobile advertising as a means to offer low-cost bicycles to those who need them most."

Attractive advertising
The concept is that companies pay to brand the bicycles with their logo. Advertising on a bike costs 2500 meticais (R755), which is much cheaper than many other forms of advertising. This enables Mozambikes to sell a bicycle that would retail at 3500 meticais (R1060), for 999 meticais (R300), which people with low incomes are more likely to be able to afford.

This type of advertising is attractive to companies because even people with lower incomes are consumers of products such as cellphones, rice and beer, and it is difficult for advertisers to reach this market in remote rural areas.

Mozambikes recognised the potential of that untapped group of people.

"We realised that a bike can not only give a Mozambican a way of changing their life and give them access to greater economic opportunities and access to schools and clinics but you are also putting a bicycle in a region where the majority of media forms – television, news­papers, sometimes even radio – do not reach," Thomas said.

Mozambikes has received orders from several big-name companies, including cellphone providers, microfinance banks, construction companies and a retail grocery store. About 400 bicycles have been sold and the company expects to close orders for more than 1 000 bicycles in the next few months.

To brand the bikes, the company designed them with a wider top bar that provides more space for a company logo, name or slogan. "We wanted the advertising to be classy, a bike that people still wanted to use," Thomas said.

"We didn't want it to be plaques, signs, billboards or anything that could compromise the integrity of the advertising. We use high-quality adhesives to put the logos on, automotive paints and two layers of varnish."

Social business strategy
It is not just the branding that is applied at the company's workshop in Maputo. Building the bikes in Mozambique was central to Mozambikes' wider social business strategy.

''We want to start a bicycle industry in the country," she said. "Most of the parts currently come from China, but from the tiniest nuts and bolts we assemble every component here. We employ seven Mozambican staff to build and paint the bikes, and our manager is a member of the Mozambican cycling team.

"We also thought a lot about the design. Our bike is much lighter and has a bigger luggage rack, so people can carry heavy loads, and we have a diagonal rather than horizontal crossbar so that women wearing traditional capulana wrap skirts can use them."

These innovations have attracted international acclaim. Last year, the company was selected as a finalist in the Cartier Foundation women's social business plan competition, and was one of only three companies selected from Africa. This year Mozambikes won the Africa prize in the William James Foundation socially responsible business plan competition, and were runners-up for the competition's overall venture stage prize.

Besides selling cheap bicycles, the company also has a registered charity. Visitors to its web page can donate a bike to the most needy members of a community. Because all the overheads required to produce the bicycles are covered by the company, all donated money goes directly on the bikes.

Olinda Felipe Cumbane (35), a maths and science teacher at the Santa Luisa de Marillac school in Manjangue, Gaza province, received one of the donated bikes.

Emotional
"I was so happy to get a bicycle, very emotional," Cumbane said. "The school has a big vegetable garden, but it's quite far away. Before we had to spend about 45 minutes walking there to collect the vegetables and carry them back on our heads, but now we can use the bike to fetch beans, rice and corn for the children and it is only about a 15-minute ride away."

The bicycle has also made a big impression on the pupils, who like the idea that their teacher now has her own wheels.

"The kids think it's funny when I ride past and they laugh. But they are happy to see me on the bike and they shout out, 'Hey! There goes teacher!'"

Another teacher who received a bike is Sister Maria do Céu (24).

"I remember when I was a child we had to walk for a number of kilo-metres to get to school. One of my friends had a bicycle and we used to see her go by. By the time we got home, she had already forgotten about school. Now finally I have my own bike."

Rapidly expanding
Florda Salvador Valoi (35), who lives in Nhancutse, a small village in Gaza province, is a social worker. "It will allow me to do so much more. I visit families in need and provide clothes, food and school materials, and check if the families are okay or if someone is sick. Some of them live quite far away, but now it will be much easier to drop by."

Mozambikes is rapidly expanding, but it is this longer-term, wider reach that its founders were aiming to achieve.

"Some people come and go, but we are really committed to making this an ongoing, sustainable business, and there is still so much more we can do," Thomas said.

"We are discussing a 'day without cars', where we get people out on the streets with their bikes, we are talking to non-governmental organisations who want to use the bicycles to get a message out rather than a brand, like 'use a mosquito net'.

"We are also working on a pitch to lobby the government for cycle lanes, and we hope to see a component factory here so we no longer have to import parts …

"We've got plenty of ideas in the pipeline; there just aren't enough hours in the day."

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