Two Wheels for a Third World

by Donna Healy of the Billings Gazette

This spring, old bicycles taking up space in garages across Billings can help improve the lives of impoverished Africans.

In Africa, a bicycle can enhance access to health care, education and jobs, said Dan Austin, a Billings bike enthusiast.

“The difference between walking 14 miles a day to biking it is huge,” said Austin, who started a Billings chapter of Bicycles for Humanity, or B4H, in February.

A nonprofit organization founded in British Columbia, B4H raises funds and collects unwanted bicycles to send to developing African countries.

The organization, which has 22 local chapters spread across three continents, has sent 10,000 bicycles overseas since it was founded in 2005. The Billings B4H chapter is the first in Montana.

Public drive kicks off

This month, the Billings chapter kicks off a public drive to collect 500 used bikes along with repair tools and spare parts — enough cast-off bikes to fill a shipping container to send to Namibia in April.

Austin is the co-founder of Austin-Lehman Adventures, a global adventure travel business headquartered in Billings. He kick-started the used bike drive by donating 120 Gary Fisher bicycles from the company’s fleet of tour bikes.

Austin, a daily bicycle commuter, is active in the Billings Chamber of Commerce’s bike trails committee. When Austin-Lehman Adventures bought a new fleet of bikes for the 2010 tour season, he contacted Bicycles for Humanity about making a donation.

He was impressed with the way the organization trains Africans to repair and maintain the bicycles.

Once the bikes arrive in a community, windows and doors are cut into the shipping container to turn it into a makeshift repair shop to refurbish the bicycles and provide on-going maintenance service.

Refurbished bicycles are given free of charge to health-care outreach volunteers and school children and others. Other bikes are sold for a low price, with income from the sale and servicing of those bicycles reinvested in other community projects.

Health-care workers can visit five times as many homes by bicycle as they can on foot, said Austin, who met with the organization’s founder, Pat Montani, of Whistler, British Columbia, in mid-February.

“I stumbled on to B4H and was so impressed with their success,” Austin said. “It’s pretty exciting how a bike can make such a dramatic difference.”

So far, almost all of the bicycles have gone to Namibia, an arid country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990, making it one of Africa’s youngest countries.

More than half the population of 2.1 million lives on $2 a day or less. About 15 percent of all the nation’s adults suffer from HIV/AIDS.

The Billings bicycles will go to Ngoma, in Namibia’s far northeastern corner.

The 20 health-care outreach workers in Ngoma will be among the first to get bicycles.

Austin and his son, Andy, a freshman at Montana State University who is interested in doing relief work overseas, will pay their own way to escort the first shipment of bikes to Namibia this spring.

Fledgling chapter

The fledgling B4H chapter has already garnered sponsorship support from Montana Cycling, a bike shop planning to open at the end of April in the Shiloh Crossing development at King Avenue West and Shiloh Road.

Montana Cycling will offer a $25 store gift certificate to anyone who donates a bike to B4H during the March donation drive.

“Combining our love of biking and working with the Billings community, while making a global difference, was just too good to pass up,” said Mark Soueidi, the store’s owner and manager.

To promote awareness of B4H and bicycling in Billings, several organizations and bike clubs will ride together in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Austin expects at least 100 bicyclists to turn out for the parade, which will kick off the public donation drive. From 2 to 5 p.m., starting on March 13 and continuing through the remaining Saturdays in March, people can donate their used bikes at the soon-to-open Montana Cycling store.

Although mountain bikes and similar-style bikes are best suited to Africa’s terrain, any bicycles, including children’s bikes, bike parts and equipment will be accepted.

“The collecting of bikes is pretty much the easy part,” Austin said.

“They have to go to the right village. The people have to be trained to maintain the bikes. You don’t want them to show up in Africa and be sold on the black market.”

One reason Austin became involved with B4H is that the organization partners with African communities to sustain the project.

Along with encouraging Billings groups, including schools, churches and bike clubs, to become involved, Austin intends to challenge other Montana communities to create their own B4H chapters.