When Whistler's Pat and Brenda Montani started their local Bicycles For Humanity bike drive five years ago, the focus was on providing health care and AIDS workers in Namibia with a free and easy way to travel between homes and towns. Most of the first recipients in early years were women working in health care and when their needs were taken care of some of the bikes went to children with a long way to go to school. The communities decide where the bikes go based on need, and according to Pat Montani the need is practically endless.
"Women drive the economies of Africa, not the guys," said Montani. "They take goods to market and bring the goods home, and take their children with them. Then we had the second group of bikes where a few went to kids who have long distances to go to school. The communities themselves make the decision where the bikes should go."
Third world entrepreneurs have been particularly adept at finding uses for bikes other than transportation and Namibia is no different. Some bikes have been converted into machines for cracking nuts to draw out a valuable type of oil or to power laptop batteries. Some are turned into mills while others have trailers added and are used for everything from ambulances for pregnant women to trailers to transport work tools.
Now the Montanis are preparing this year's shipment of bikes but find themselves between 100 and 120 bikes short of a full container. As a result they are hosting bike drives in Squamish and Whistler this weekend to make up the difference and get the container underway.
Since the program began in 2006 Bicycles For Humanity has expanded to more than 25 chapters around North America. Each chapter works the same way, purchasing a container at the end of its service life for roughly $2,500, then fundraising to ship the container to Africa - a cost of about $6,000 from Vancouver. Each container has room for about 400 bikes, plus whatever used tires, bike parts, bike tools, helmets and other gear is donated. It's a one-way trip for the container, which becomes a bike shop and distribution centre that services the community after delivery.
Whistler and Pemberton have contributed three containers of bikes, and Kelowna - which the Montanis also oversee - has contributed seven containers for a total of 4,000 bikes. To date all of those bikes have gone to Namibia where there are partners, but the program is starting to expand. Just two months ago the first container of bikes arrived in Uganda, and other containers will be sent to Zambia and Malawi this year.
The Whistler container will be sent to Tsumeb, Namibia, where the community sent two previous containers a few years ago.
Globally, the Bicycles for Humanity movement is shipping about 15,000 bikes a year to Africa, where the demand is seemingly endless.
Montani is accepting bikes from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 24 in Squamish at the Tantalus Bike Shop. On Sunday, the collection takes place in Whistler at the Wild Willies location on Nesters Road, also from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The best kinds of bike to donate are old mountain bikes with no suspension, although other types of bikes are considered as long as the frames are in working order. Kids bikes are less of a priority but may also be accepted if there is room in the container.
As well, Montani is looking for tires, tubes, helmets, pumps, chains, and other types of gear and tools.
"They can always find a use," he said. "Here we might throw out a tire when the tread is a bit worn but in Africa they'll ride those tires until the metal cables are poking through. They patch tubes over and over, and get these bikes to work."
The group is not a registered charity, which means that volunteers provide labour and there are no overhead costs to consider.
Although Whistler and Pemberton are slowly being picked clean of older bikes, Montani will continue to mine the region by expanding the collection to include the Lower Mainland. Rock Creek School in North Vancouver has helped to fill the container in the past and helped out again this year. And Montani says there are always opportunities to form partnerships with bike stores throughout the region.
"The need in Africa doesn't change and the number of bikes in the west coast keeps going up, we just need to expand the footprint of our collections to keep this program moving," he said. "We can host a drive in Vancouver and get 500 bikes in one afternoon, so the bikes are out there."
And most bikes still wind up in landfills at the end of their life. One industry report citied by Montani suggests that as many as 10 million bikes are thrown out every year in North America.
"We ride recreationally, but in Africa a bike is so much more," said Montani. "Everything is put to use."