When Michael Linke first traveled to Namibia 10 years ago, he intended to supply local health care outreach workers with a shipment of recycled bicycles they could use to travel longer distances. When he got there, however, he realized his plan was a dud.
“In Namibia, we found one [bicycle] mechanic in the whole country, so that model just didn’t work,” says Linke. “At the same time we were doing all this work with health care organizations, and they were all telling us there were problems with resources to maintain bicycles.”
Soon after, Linke founded the Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN Namibia), which facilitates the distribution of bicycles in the southern African country. BEN Namibia organizes with overseas organizations that collect secondhand bicycles and send them to Namibia in large shipping containers. Working with local community partners, it trains workers in bicycle repair and basic business skills. It also helps turn the shipping containers into bicycle and bicycle maintenance shops.
“The idea is that these community organizations empower their volunteers to run an enterprise,” says Linke.
Many of the 72 community partners BEN Namibia works with are HIV/AIDS health care workers who need to travel long distances to do outreach work. Since 2004, BEN Namibia has opened up 32 bike shops in the nation’s cities and towns. The shops employ 112 Namibians, half of whom are women. “The idea of the model was to create employment opportunities and an income stream for these partner organizations,” says Linke.
Linke believes that access to bicycles and bicycle infrastructure is not just a transport issue but also a human rights issue.
“People really should have the right to affordable mobility so that they can [have] access to economic opportunities.” says Linke. “You need to look at these encumbrances like the cost of transport, like the distance from where you live to where the economic opportunities are, [and] the places where you can access them.”
In countries like Namibia, pubic transportation is inaccessible to much of the population. A large problem, says Linke, is population sprawl. It’s difficult to build effective public transportation systems in cities that are too sparsely populated. In Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, the local government is working to build public transportation infrastructure. But making the streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians, says Linke, is still important.
“People really recognize that it’s a resource that they can afford to maintain,” says Linke. “[Cycling] is cheaper than the local public transportations system. It’s viable for many of the commutes that people take.”
Although a stigma still is attached to cycling in some parts of the country, where it may be perceived as a “poor person’s transport,” Linke says cycling is more dignified than other forms of transport a Namibian worker may be forced to take.
“If you’re a building laborer, you’ll be shoved in the back of a truck, an open-back truck, and squashed in there like a sardine with 50 people, and then trucked off to the building site,” says Linke.
There’s also the issue of personal liberty. Not too long ago, Namibia was under the rule of apartheid South Africa; the South African government controlled many aspects of daily life for Namibians. The legacy of that era continues to pervade Namibian society. Biking, says Linke, provides Namibians a sense of personal freedom they may not experience in other parts of their lives. Linke wants to spread that freedom across the African continent. The project is expanding to Zambia and Madagascar.
“There’s nothing freer than getting on your bike and going wherever you want to, whenever you want,” he says.
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