Local nonprofit collects bikes for rural Namibia

Article By Zach Benoit of the Billings Gazette 

Fourteen Namibian officials, almost 400 bicycles, a Billings-based nonprofit and a local adventure tourism company.

What sounds like something that could quickly turn into a pair of tricky distance-and-division math problems actually focuses on just a single number: one.

One shipping container connects them all across the more than 9,000 miles from Billings to Namibia's Caprivi region.


Wheels of Change, a local nonprofit that provides bicycles as empowerment tools to rural Africans, is gearing up a drive to collect about 400 bikes to send to Wuparo Conservancy in the Caprivi region.

"It's basically empowerment through mobility," said Dan Austin, who established the international Wheels of Change headquarters and runs Austin-Lehman Adventures, an upscale international adventure travel company that works in partnership with the organization.

"We're going in and helping them create something that they can be proud of, that's sustainable, that'll be there long after we're gone."

The donated bikes will be sent in a 40-foot-long shipping container, which will then be converted into a shop, called a bicycle empowerment center, where bicycles can be sold and repaired by trained locals.

As a result of Austin-Lehman's presence in the Caprivi area and Wheels of Change's plans to bring in the bicycles, 14 Namibian officials, including village elders and businessmen, will travel to the Billings area in September as part of a cultural exchange program.

Many will be associated with the Wuparo Conservancy, which is part of a Namibian tourism model in which lodges and hotels are built on land donated by local residents. In exchange, the owners split the profits 60/40 with locals, who are also hired as employees and protect the wildlife, which boosts tourism.

"The relationship there has some real parallels to here, with wildlife and landowners," Austin said. "It was a wild idea and it took on some legs."

During their trip to Montana, the Namibian officials will visit the Crow Reservation, tour Yellowstone National Park, check out area ranches, visit with park rangers and even take in a Montana State University football game to learn how business, conservation and wildlife intersect in Montana.

On Sept. 6, their first day in Montana, elders from the village will bless and accept the container at a special dinner at ZooMontana, which has partnered with Wheels of Change to provide free zoo admission to anybody who donates a bicycle.

"The zoo is honored to partner with Wheels of Change. This is a worthwhile cause with a wide scope — far-reaching from our corner in Montana," said Jeff Ewelt, the zoo's executive director.

"Folks in the Billings area are invited from now until the container is full to drop off donated mountain bikes at the zoo and in return receive a free pass for admission."

Austin said that through teaming up with local group Bicycle Empowerment Namibia, the bicycles provide an ongoing source of income and aid for the community and people who receive them. About 35 bicycles will immediately go to local health care workers, who can visit five times more homes on a bike than on foot.

Other bikes will go to locals to start up a bicycle tour company run by locals near the conservancy. The bikes can be leased out to the lodge itself or villagers can buy them for about $50 each, and the container will act as a shop that employs several people to run it.

"They really become a kind of village centerpiece," Austin said. "At the shop, for a lot of them, it's maybe their first job. Women there are more likely to graduate high school if they have a bike, because of the travel distance, and others can find work or bring in more income."

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