What do pre-loved bikes, Uganda and actor Ben Stiller all have in common? Amazingly — it's Whistler and Pat and Brenda Montani.
Six years ago the Montani's founded Bicycles For Humanity (B4H) — their mission was to collect one container full of bikes (500) and deliver it to the people of Namibia. Now B4H is a global grassroots organization with chapters all over Canada, the U.S., Australia, the Netherlands and Mexico. Over 50,000 bikes have been delivered to the developing world.
"When we started B4H we were telling the story of collecting the bikes," said Pat Montani. "But the stories that are important are the stories of the people in Africa, the differences [the bicycles] have made to a family, a child or a student. When we tell their stories to people over here, it gets them to collect more bikes and send them over. People want to connect."
This October Montani and B4H were set to deliver another container of bicycles to Uganda, but, as often happens, red-tape got in the way: "On my last day in Uganda I ended up writing a personal check to the government for about $12,000," said Montani. "If I had fought it, people never would have seen the bikes."
Montani's plight did not go unnoticed in the social media channels and now actor Ben Stiller is using his foundation to assist B4H to transport the containers overland from African ports to their destinations. There are three more containers leaving this month for Karamoja from Victoria, Edmonton and Saskatoon. Montani will be joining Stiller at a fundraiser in New York in February.
"There was light at the end of the tunnel," said Montani. "With the 10 containers we send to Karamoja next year, the Stiller Foundation will cover all the taxes and overland expenses."
The help arrived through a circuitous route — Paul Sherwen, a former competitive road cyclist for Britain and the voice of the Tour de France, lives in Uganda and has spent many years there since his childhood. He has a special place in his heart for Karamoja, having fond memories of hunting there as a child.
Sherwen teamed up with Montani to help raise funds for the Karamoja Bicycle Initiative, and as is common these days the call went out on Twitter. That's when Stiller, who has been to Karamoja on a humanitarian effort, heard about it and immediately contacted Sherwen. After Sherwen described the plan to bring thousands of bicycles to the people of Karamoja, Stiller jumped on board.
Now two shipping containers full of pre-loved Whistler and Vancouver bicycles have finally reached their destination of Karamoja, Uganda.
The bicycles were collected, packaged and shipped as part of the Karamoja Bicycle Initiative, which is and funded by the Bicycles for Humanity (B4H) program. All were collected and donated through the B4H Whistler Chapter and John Henry Bikes of North Vancouver.
Bicycles in such remote regions as Karamoja are being used to transport almost everything. A bicycle manufacturer in southern Uganda bears the logo "Any Road, Any Load" and this holds true for those lucky enough to have two-wheeled transport. Any thing from water to firewood to building materials can be strapped onto luggage racks. Crops and even small livestock can be quickly transported to a market 50 kilometers away where the farmer can sell for double the price. Healthcare workers can visit several villages a day and in emergencies can tow a patient on a trailer to the nearest hospital.
Once the container of bikes reaches its destination it unfolds into a bike shop complete with tools and spare parts. Training is provided by skilled bike shop mechanics.
But shipping these containers from North America to the coastal ports of Africa is only half the battle. Each country has its own set of customs regulations and the Ugandan government has made it clear that the bicycles, despite being for a humanitarian cause, are not exempt from import taxes.
This is true in other African jurisdictions as well. B4H has grown well beyond what the Montanis originally envisioned.
ÒIf you had asked me (six years ago) whether this was going to turn in to a global grassroots movement, the largest of its kind to deliver bikes to people in need, I would have said youÕre crazy,Ó said Montani.
ÒDeep down, everyone understands what a bicycle can do and everyone wants to help other people. We just found an easy way for people to connect through Bicycles for Humanity.Ó