Project Rwanda uses Bikes to Further Economic Development

February 23, 2011 – Jen Noelken

Cycle enthusiast Tom Ritchey started Project Rwanda in the mid-2000s after visiting the country in 2005.  Ritchey fell in love with the inspiring stories of hope from the Rwandan people and the country’s natural beauty.  He decided by combining his passion for cycling with his new passion for Rwanda, he could increase the quality of lifestyle for the Rwandan people.  Bikes could act as a tool to help build a country, create national pride and address local issues.

Project Rwanda gives coffee bean farmers a simple, sustainable way to deliver their crop in a more efficient manner.  With nearly 500,000 small-holder coffee producers, each possessing around 200 coffee trees, coffee is the primary cash generator in rural Rwanda.  In the U.S. alone, the specialty coffee market is an estimated $20 billion per year industry with an annual growth of around 10 percent.  Rwanda’s coffee trees could generate over $150 million in yearly foreign exchange.  Coffee trade has the ability to drive Rwanda’s rural economy leading to a continued stability of the country along with peace and welfare.

Unfortunately, some coffee farmers must travel a distance of up to 10 kilometers (around six miles) on rough terrain.   With thousands of other farmers traveling at the same time, negotiating steep, muddy roads can take six to twelve hours, some times longer.  Cooperatives can only afford a few trucks costing $1,900 USD.  The cost of such a luxury comes out of the farmer’s own pocket.  Every hour is vital when transporting the picked beans.  Coffee beans must be processed within a few hours of being picked to receive maximum profit.  Any delay can deteriorate the quality of the beans.  The more time elapses, the more potential for bacteria growth which will ferment the sugars in the bean resulting in a “barnyard” taste.

Ritchey’s proposal was to provide Rwandan cooperatives a solution for their transportation issues.  Ritchey and other volunteers looked at four aspects of walking verse biking:  time, carrying capacity, distance covered, and effort.  With little surprise, data collected by World Bicycle Relief showed bikes improved quality in all areas.  Estimates show the use of a bike can provide a time gain of three extra hours, carrying capacity increases by five times, distance covered increases by four to five times (opposed to walking in the same amount of time), and effort decreases allowing farther travel in less time. 

With the help of bikes, farmers could decrease their delivery time from six to twelve hours to two to four hours.  The time difference would prevent beans from fermenting, increase the cup quality, translating into a better profit for the farmer.  Bikes would not only benefit individual farmers, national coffee revenue would potentially increase as well.  Total coffee revenues could reach $1 million for every 125 containers of coffee sold.  Higher premiums equate to a greater economic impact. 

Project Rwanda focuses on giving farmers a “hand-up” not a “hand-out.”  Bikes are purchased and owned by individuals or cooperatives.  Despite the limited amount of cash, some bikes have been purchased through saving.  Others opt for micro financing (small loans) through Urwego Bank.  Loan payments are structured to correspond with harvesting.

The bikes Project Rwanda uses are specially designed to maintain, despite the demands of riding over Rwanda’s roads.  Unlike much of Africa, Rwanda is extremely mountainous.  The country is often referred to as “Little Switzerland of Africa” and “Land of a Thousand Hills.”  Used or standard bikes could not withstand such extreme conditions. The bikes must be durable, require less maintenance and be manufactured at a fraction of the retail cost.  For now, bike components are sourced globally with manufacturing in China and assembly in Rwanda.  Research is underway to determine if bikes could be manufactured in Africa.  Africa manufacturing would create jobs and possible reduce unit costs.

Currently, the project relies on word-of-mouth networking by farmers to spread the impact bikes can have on the community.  Word is spreading more easily as Rwandans continue to see and hear the benefits a bike can create.

For more information visit Project Rwanda’s website.   

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