About 20km south of Johannesburg, on the edge of a dusty red football field in Somalia Park lives a soft-spoken man in his 30s named Moses Dlamini.
His shack has no elctricity or running water. It stands to the left of a small yard covered in a canopy of green groundsheets held up by broad sticks. In the yard, 6 400 two-litre soft drink bottles are arranged in tightly-packed rows. But the Pepsi, Coke Light and Ginger Beer bottles no longer carry carbonated drinks. Each one has now been carefully filled with soil and houses a tree.
Dlamini was one of a sombre group of about 60 people awaiting the arrival of delegates from nonprofit organisation Qhubeka and its partner, Wildlands Conservation Trust, last Thursday. Barring a few young adults and one teenager, most of the crowd consisted of mothers herding youngsters, elderly men with rounded backs and aged women steeped with years of manual labour.
A few hundred metres away stood the bikes they were there to collect. They huddled like a small cornfield of black and yellow, cordoned off with tape and flanked by huge MTN banners that flapped in the wind. One hundred and twenty Qhubeka Buffalo Bicycles were to be distributed that day – "distributed" rather than "given out", because the recipients had worked hard to earn them. That, said the nonprofit organisation's founder Anthony Fitzhenry, was one of the programme's defining traits. "It's a hand-up, not a hand-out," he said.
Most of the beneficiaries of Thursday's bikes were so-called tree-preneurs. As part of a programme run by Wildlands Conservation Trust, they had spent about eight months planting and growing trees. A hundred trees would be traded for a bike. Wildlands visited the homes, counted the saplings and found buyers for the trees before transporting them away. The plants that are between 30cm and 60cm high sell for R5. Those 1m or taller sell for R10.
But Wildlands did not issue the participants with cash. Instead they issued "coupons" that could be swapped for goods provided by Wildlands partners – in this case, Qhubeka bicycles.
"Waste-preneurs" were also dotted throughout the township, another scheme overseen by Wildlands. Those participating had their gardens stocked with oversized bags holding beer bottles and recyclable plastic products.
Anyone wanting a bicycle had to collect 1 200kg of recyclable glass or about 350kg of plastic. According to Wildlands initiatives manager Hlengiwe Mthembu, someone who worked consistently could gather this in two weeks.
"You don't know how hard we work for this," said Hlengiwe Nxumalo (29) who was waiting to collect a bicycle with her younger brother, Sandile (22). "We walk everywhere looking for rubbish."
The pair had moved to Somalia Park from Durban three years ago. "We came here because we want money. We are looking for work. Any, any, any work – so that we can eat," she said.
And, said Fitzhenry, economic need is what the organisation hopes to address. "This is an entrepreneurial programme," he told the Mail & Guardian.
"Access to independence"
Founded in 2005, Qhubeka (an Nguni word meaning to carry on or progress) aims to provide South Africans with "access to independence and livelihood through bicycles".
For the past four years, it has leveraged the brand name of its partner, Team MTN Qhubeka, Africa's only pro-continental bicycle racing team. The team, whose riders donate 5% of their prize money to Qhubeka, join the nonprofit organisation to spread the gospel about "mobilising change in Africa, one bicycle at a time". The organisation has distributed more than 40 000 bicycles so far, and hopes to increase that to 70 000 by the end of next year.
The bicycles have the power to change the lives of their recipients, said Fitzhenry. He cited research claiming that the use of a bike can reduce the time a child takes to get to school by 75%.
"If we could get two million grade 10 learners on bikes, two years later the matric pass rate would go up by 30%."
According to Mthembu, the bicycles assist entrepreneurs as well. "They use the bikes to sell chickens or bread," she said. "One man is renting out his bike. When people return from using it, they pay him R20."
The bicycles are designed for durability by nonprofit organisation World Bicycle Relief in Chicago. They sport puncture-resistant long-wear tyres, and can support a weight of 300kg. They are also designed for cost efficiency – a single speed, "one size fits all" frame is combined with an adjustable seat post and stem. The components are manufactured in China and assembled in Pietermaritzburg by South African women.
Bulk buying and shipments allow Qhubeka to supply a bicycle at a cost of R1 995. It supplies a "critical mass" of 500 bikes to an area, and ensures that "bikepreneurs" are trained to maintain them. A flat tyre costs R10 to fix, including a patch and the labour involved.
Despite efforts to supply a durable product at an affordable running cost, about one in four people sell their bikes as soon as they get them.
"The bike will help us a lot," said Nxumalo. "We are just going to sell it." She was surprised to hear the production cost of the bike. She would try to sell it for between R500 and R800, she said — about a quarter of its commercial value.
"The price ranges between R250 to R1 800 depending on who the bicycle is sold to and where. In this environment, cash is king," said Fitzhenry.
"We're not telling people this is a gift; they have earned the title to it. They can do what they want with it."
And even though the bikes are traded at less than their value, the wealth that is generated "is embedded in the community", he said.
Economics notwithstanding, many of the participants would choose food and clothes over bikes, said Mthembu. Wildlands could only reward its entrepreneurs in the currency its partners offered. The donors who offer food and clothing had exhausted their annual budget.
"No other choice"
"Now all we can offer the people is bikes. We don't have another choice!" she said.
"If you put a bicycle here and then food, obviously people would go for food. But bikes are still helpful and doing good," she said.
Wildlands faces another real constraint: trying to secure a market for the trees grown in the community. "At the moment we have one million trees in Gauteng and no buyers," said Mthembu.
In the same vein, Qhubeka can only reward people with bicycles as fast as money flows in from donors.
"It's quite complicated; we're playing the role of a central bank system," said Fitzhenry. "We can only provide bikes as fast as money comes in."
So amid the complex conundrums of this alternate economy, what of Dlamini? His trees earn him 64 bicycles – more than half the average consignment.
Qhubeka has undertaken to deliver all the earned bicycles to Somalia Park by November. It will be up to Dlamini to maximise the value derived from the bikes.
"It's not the answer that is going to solve all of his issues. But it's something," said Fitzhenry.
"When I first met Mr Dlamini two years ago, he was a very depressed individual. But now he has hope. That's hopefully what we do – provide the inspiration for people to change their lives."