Bicycles Go Farming

What use is a bicycle to a farmer? Don’t they need tractors? Phil Latz discovered the value of bicycles at a dairy farmers’ cooperative.

Above: It’s early morning at Magoye and this young dairy farmer is bringing in his morning milk. The front pedal is down to a steel spindle, but the bike is probably quite new.

World Bicycle Relief's Contribution

During April/May 2008 I spent a week in Zambia, studying the operations of World Bicycle Relief. In case you are not familiar with it, World Bicycle Relief provides bicycles to people in need in disaster relief and poverty assistance situations in order to increase access to healthcare, education and economic development opportunities. It was founded by Frederick ‘F.K.’ Day and his wife Leah Missbach Day in 2005. F.K. is one of the co-founders and owners of SRAM, the bicycle component company, and has now left his role as head of product development to work full time on World Bicycle Relief.

After distributing more than 24,000 bicycles to Tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, World Bicycle Relief turned its attention to Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa. Their program there includes distributing 23,000 bicycles to volunteer, community-based HIV/AIDS healthcare volunteers, disease prevention educators and vulnerable households.

But barely half way into the project, the reputation of World Bicycle Relief’s bullet-proof, specially designed bicycles is so strong amongst the locals, that other Zambians are clamouring to own one. Some of these people are more than willing to pay for them.

We drove about two hours west of the capital, Lusaka, to visit one such group.

‘Magoye’ refers to a region, but the main township itself is a fascinating old railway town which faces the main railway line from South Africa to Zambia. Although trains still use the line, it looked like its heyday had long since gone, and the main street had a semi ghost town feel about it.

The people were polite and friendly. In two days of wandering freely around town, nobody gave me any hassles or asked for any money, despite the fact that as a typical white westerner, I earn more in a week than they do in a year.

There was a magical atmosphere of tranquillity in this dairy farming community that words cannot adequately convey—but the almost complete absence of cars may have had something to do with it…

On the second day of our visit we arrived just before sunrise, to observe and photograph the morning milk collection at the Magoye Smallholder Dairy Farmers Cooperative.

Exactly 300 dairy farmers are the members and co-owners of the cooperative. Of these, 299 deliver their milk to the depot, twice every day, by bicycle. Who is the odd one out? The largest farmer, who can supply up to 105 litres per day, uses an ox cart.

The Cooperative is a classic example of how just a little bit of outside help and expertise can make a massive, generational improvement in a community’s well being.

Back in 1921 a small dairy cooperative was formed in Minnesota, USA which became known as ‘Land O’Lakes’. Fast forward eighty years. Land O’Lakes is still a farmer owned cooperative, but has become a huge, global organisation and has established Land O’Lakes International Development to help farmers in Third World countries.

At Magoye, this has meant setting up the cooperative, and equipping it with a large, modern, stainless steel, refrigerated collection tank. It also involves training cooperative staff in milk quality testing, equipping each dairy farmer with stainless steel milk churns and improving the heard quality.

Every day a modern milk tanker truck takes the cooperative’s milk away to a dairy processing factory in the nearest large town. In return, the farmers now receive a reliable cash income, paid once per month. The Co-op is paid 1,800 Kwacha per litre (about US50c) and pays the farmers 1,500 Kwacha per litre (about US42c). The balance is used to run the Co-op’s two depots, including staff wages.

None of this is done as charity. The farmers can afford to pay off the equipment sold to them through the increased income they now earn.

Where can World Bicycle Relief fit in to this equation? One look at the bikes we photographed on the collection morning gives the answer. The shoddy bikes that until now have been all that was available to the farmers, are not up to the task of hauling up to 60 kilograms of milk churns over rough dirt tracks.

We saw farmers pushing bikes with no chains. Many others were pedalling bikes with just the steel pedal spindle left. We saw frames with repair welds on top of previous welds. Although their bikes looked old, we were told that often they only last six months to a year before needing replacement.

It costs the farmers time and money to keep repairing and replacing these bicycles. The previous day I attended a meeting of the Co-op’s leaders along with representatives of World Bicycle Relief and the Zambian microfinance division of World Vision, HARMOS. The farmers were already well aware of the vastly superior quality of the World Bicycle Relief bicycles. With over half of the planned 23,000 bikes having been donated to volunteer care workers throughout Zambia, the bikes have quickly earned a high reputation for their strength and reliability. These are the factors that count for a bicycle in rural Africa.

It was agreed that a sample bike would be put on display at the Co-op the following week. HARMOS would provide loans and the Co-op would act as both guarantor and payment agency, deducting the repayments from the farmer’s regular monthly milk payments.

As the farmers on average each earn about US$100 per month in milk sales, the repayments were affordable—about US$40 or US$25 per month, depending upon if a three or six month term was chosen.

Then they would own a bike that would survive a decade of hard work, rather than just a year. Of course, to achieve this, proper maintenance is essential. Therefore part of the meeting’s agenda was for World Bicycle Relief to offer to train a Field Mechanic. The selected member of the local community would attend one of World Bicycle Relief’s one-week intensive training courses that would include two days of business management skills, followed by three days of assembly and repair training on the bikes. Field Mechanics are also provided with a comprehensive tool kit and a uniform.

In turn, the Co-op would provide a room at the depot for the mechanic to set up a bike repair workshop, so that the farmers could have their bikes maintained, while they were delivering their milk each day.

The Field Mechanic would also be encouraged to offer repair services to all other members of the community.

It was a great experience to see the farmers arrive and deliver their milk. Some, who might only have one or two cows, came with small milk churns, holding just a few litres. But others came with up to three milk churns strapped onto racks on the back of their bicycles.

They fasten them down with rubber strips made from old inner tubes. Nothing is wasted in Africa!

Land O’Lakes is continuing to work with the farmers, in particular they are helping to improve the dairy cow breeding, so that they achieve higher milk yields.

In the meantime a fleet of new World Bicycle Relief bicycles will not only increase their carrying potential, but reduce the time and money farmers need to spend on transporting their milk each day.

It was thought provoking to see how a relatively small amount of well considered assistance—a hand up, not a hand out—could make such a huge difference to the lives of several thousand people in the Magoye district.