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Interview: F.K. Day on how bikes can catalyze economies

,    /   Sep 23rd, 2010International, Interviews

Before creating World Bicycle Relief, F.K. Day ran SRAM, one of the world’s top manufacturers of bicycle parts.  In 2005, struck by the images of people struggling to cope after the Tsunami, Day flew to Sri Lanka. He thought his bicycle and business know-how could help. Not everyone agreed. But within weeks, Day was working on delivering 24,000 sturdy, locally made bikes to people desperately in need of low-cost mobility. Here, Day shares with Dowser his thoughts on the power of bikes to propel global development.

Dowser: You founded World Bicycle Relief in response to the Tsunami. Your bike company was already highly successful, but you had no disaster relief experience when you got on that plane to Sri Lanka. What made you think you could make a difference?
Day: When I saw those devastating images of people walking in rubble, scrambling on their feet, I thought: these people need bikes.  Bikes are what I know, they’re what I do.
When you approached relief agencies with your idea how did they react?

Before flying over, we called all the big agencies in the U.S. and proposed a large-scale bicycle program. All of them turned us down. They all said, ‘Just send money.’

Why didn’t you just send money?
It was just so obvious to us that bikes could help people get around faster. Get water, food, and medical help faster. I thought if we could show people on the ground the power of bikes, they would get it.

So you went to ground zero.
We did. We met with field workers in Sri Lanka from the Red Cross, World Vision, Save the Children, and OxFam. They got it right away. One guy was like, ‘Of course, bikes! Why didn’t we think of that?’

How did SRAM and the relief agencies work together?
We went in totally naïve. I had this crazy notion that we’d collect used bikes and ship them over. But once we got to Sri Lanka, we could see that the infrastructure was totally broken. There was no way in hell you could get in container-loads of used bikes. Plus, American bikes just aren’t designed to last in that brutal environment.

Did you have a Plan B?
No. But we’re good on our feet. World Vision, an international relief organization, said they would go into the field to see if people would actually use bikes, so we kicked into gear.

We lined up a company in Sri Lanka that could bring in tubing and parts from India. They cut, weld, paint, and build the bikes right there. Then we waited to hear back from World Vision. No use building bikes if people wouldn’t use them.

How long before you got the green light?
A few weeks later I got a 2 a.m. email.  It said: ‘OK, we’re gonna need 24,400 bikes.’  We were like, ‘Wahoo!’ And then we’re like, ‘Oh shit, now what do we do?’

That’s a lot of bikes.
Before we could get started, we had to raise $1.5 million and teach a local company how to produce tens of thousands of bikes to our specifications.

Now World Bicycle Relief is getting bikes to AIDS workers in Zambia and school kids in Tanzania. How did you make the leap from disaster relief to health and education?
Once it was clear that the bikes were really helping people in Sri Lanka, a few of the relief workers said: ‘You know, what you’re doing here is really important. But the number of people that died in the tsunami, that’s how many die every two weeks in Africa. You’ve got to take this program to Africa.’

Africa is a big place.
Huge.  The primary mode of transportation in Africa is your feet. Productivity loss due to time spent walking is horrendous.

Africa needs tens of millions of bikes, not just a hundred thousand here and there. We quickly realized that we needed to teach local people to do it themselves if we wanted to turn the dial on global poverty.

Is that your focus now?
Yeah. We help others design and set up large scale programs. Everything from figuring out how many and what kind of bikes are needed to building the bikes and training people in bike repair.

Where there are bikes, there’ll be bike shops.
They’ve sprung up all over. People are earning money building bikes and fixing them.

In business, you measure sales and profits.  How do you measure the impact of bikes?
Bikes are tools.  So, we measure how much better someone’s life is with the tool than without: Did a family’s income increase when they got a bike? Did kids with bikes go to school more often? Did they carry friends to school? Are people visiting clinics more often? Are health care workers with bikes getting deeper into the field?

What kind of answers are you getting?
Yes, yes, yes.

You jumped into poverty alleviation rather suddenly with an innovative approach.  Did having a fresh set of eyes helped?
A lot of the strategy to help the poor gets developed in academia or in the offices of the World Bank. At World Bicycle Relief we have a saying: All answers reside in the field.  We say it at SRAM, too, because it’s also true for business.

How so?
Before starting SRAM, my brother, Stan, and I toyed around with a few other business ideas but none took off.

Then one day Stan called me. He’d just returned from a bike trip in Nova Scotia. He told me how frustrating it was to have to take his hands off the handlebars to change gears in that cold, Canadian wind.  Right then we decided to make gear shifts for handlebars.

Did you ever think your business would help show the world the importance of basic transportation at the bottom of the market?
Never. But it makes sense. About $2 trillion has been spent over the last 70 years on programs to address poverty. Most have failed. We’ll never decrease poverty through philanthropy.  Moving the dial on extreme poverty will take financial and business commitments. And I’m talking about for-profit approaches.

Any advice for entrepreneurs who want to put a dent in world poverty?
If someone wants to make a difference, my advice would be: start a business in Africa delivering really good bikes. The need is there, and there’s no greater gift you can give to a community than a working business.

This article was edited and condensed.

Photo: Chris Thomas/USAID

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