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How second hand bicycles are changing lives

Alia Parker's picture
A woman fetches water on her bicycle in Uganda. Copyright Ebony Butler. Cycle Traveller

When Ebony Butler asked two child soldiers in Northern Uganda what would make a difference to their lives, they answered “bikes”. These were no ordinary children and their request – made in one of the poorest countries on earth – was far from what you would consider to be childish dreams of a new toy. In a region at the mercy of rebel fighters such as Joseph Kony, where bloodshed is rife and children are abducted and forced to become killers, the humble bicycle is worth its weight in gold.

“Most people can't afford a bike. There's only a few people that have them,” says Butler, founder of Bikes 4 Life, a not-for-profit group which provides second-hand bicycles to people in need.

In Africa, a heavy single-speed bike from China costs about $100 – the same as the cost of a hut to live in and equal to about a quarter of a family's annual income. As a result, walking is the main mode of transport for many rural people.

“They normally just walk for water or walk for miles to get to school or get to work or to see their family; some of them walk for days.”

Ebony Butler from Bikes 4 Life prepares bicycles in Uganda. Cycle Traveller

Given that, when one of Butler's Bikes 4 Life containers full of refurbished bikes with gears and spare parts turns up, the impact can't be understated. The mobility these treadlies provide is crucial to fostering economic and social development.

Pedalling forward

For Butler, what started as a promise of two bikes has grown into a fully-fledged charity based out of Melbourne, with a container of bikes shipped to Uganda in 2012 and again in 2013. Bikes 4 Life has also shipped bikes to Papua New Guinea and has plans to send containers to Pakistan and Cambodia in 2014.

But the good work doesn't just extend to overseas; much of what Bikes 4 Life does is focused locally, with bikes provided to remote indigenous communities as well as to new refugee residents and Survivors of Torture.

The charity has become a labour of love for Butler, who has learned to overcome many obstacles to keep the wheels rolling. For instance, corruption in Africa has meant that Bikes 4 Life has had to pay out $7,000 in “taxes” each time to get their second-hand bikes into the country, despite assurances from the government otherwise. And in Australia, where many indigenous communities live in remote regions, high trucking costs have prevented access to many regions.

Butler says one community in particular – Tjuntjuntjara in Western Australia – is a proactive community that Bikes 4 Life would love to support.

Bikes 4 Life works with many charities to provide those in need with bicycles. Cycle Traveller

“We really really want to go there; it's a model community,” says Butler. “The problem is we've got bikes for them but we're trying to find someone to help us get them there. The cost we've got is like sending them to Africa and back, which is $11,000 to truck them there from Adelaide, which we can't afford.”

Butler says Bikes 4 Life sponsor Visa Global Logistics has been an enormous help in transporting bikes internationally and between main cities in Australia, but the group doesn't operate in many remote regions of Australia, meaning Bikes 4 Life is on the hunt for a truckie who can.

How to help

As word about Bikes 4 Life has spread, Butler says they have been inundated with second-hand bikes at their Melbourne and Sydney drop-off points. The charity's main focus now is finding more volunteers to help restore the bikes as well as help with administrative tasks, website design and just about anything else you can think of.

“We've got so many bikes. We're not short on bikes,” she says. “We're short of volunteers, spare parts, accessories, tools – because when we send a container overseas we turn it into a bike workshop; when the bikes get to a community we need to be able to maintain them.”

Volunteers help repair bicycles at Bikes 4 Life. Cycle TravellerBikes 4 Life operates workshops in Melbourne every Wednesday and Sunday where volunteers can help repair bikes. Bikes that are not suitable to be used overseas, such as Vintage bikes, are restored and sold at the markets.

“You don't have to be skilled in bikes to help,” says Butler. “My mum is one of our biggest volunteers and she comes down and cleans all the bikes.”

She says a number of businesses have begun to get involved in their Corporate Program, where workers come together for a day of team building and community service by helping to prepare bicycles while learning more about the positive impact a bike can have on not just one person's life, but an entire community.

You can find out more on the Bikes 4 Life website.

Images from top: 1. Katherine cycles to collect water on her bike in Uganada. 2. Ebony Butler prepares a bike for distribution in Uganda. 3. Bikes 4 Life works with many charities to provide bicycles for those in need. 4. Volunteers prepare to send collected bikes.


This is so inspirational. Thank you!

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