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Leah Missbach Day co-founded a global effort that has transformed the bicycle and the lives of thousands.
As soon as Leah Missbach Day picks up the phone, the passion in her voice is electric. “I am on fire,” she said. On this summer afternoon, the co-founder of World Bicycle Relief is still fresh off a plane from Africa, reeling with excitement and inspiration after connecting with children and adults in South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and whose lives have been transformed by a simple tool: a bicycle.
Since 2005, World Bicycle Relief has distributed more than 140,000 bikes in Africa and Indonesia, but it started in a cabin in Michigan. As Leah – a documentary photographer – and her husband, F.K. Day – the co-founder of SRAM, a major bicycle components manufacturer – watched the nearly inconceivable destruction of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Indonesia, they immediately thought, “What can we do beyond sending a check?”
Ignoring the ivory tower bureaucrats, the Days went directly to Sri Lanka to connect with relief workers and local organizations on the ground and discovered they could do more. When field managers asked local residents what they needed to help them rebuild their lives – get back to work, return their children to school, access healthcare – their response was right in the Days’ wheelhouse: Sri Lankans needed bicycles. With a donation of more than 24,000 bikes, World Bicycle Relief was born.
Partnering with World Vision, which distributed and monitored the bikes, WBR helped to pedal thousands of families from tragedy to normalcy. That success called for quick evolution. As Missbach Day recalled, “A gentleman working in relief in Sri Lanka said, ‘Do you realize the number of people lost in this tsunami – 250,000 – is the same number of people who die every two weeks in Africa from preventable diseases? You need to replicate this program there.’ Our jaws dropped on the floor. This put it all in perspective.”
But they found out quickly that translating the program to Africa would mean transforming the bicycle itself. Because of the terrain, use, and climate, traditional bikes just couldn’t cut it. “Every single bike we saw had the brakes dangling or missing; the pedals fell off; the covering on the saddles dried out and peeled back,” Missbach Day said.
With a brand pledge to “Leap Ahead,” SRAM was the perfect place to create the Buffalo Bicycle – a ride built for needs of the people it served. With a heavy-gauge steel frame, weatherproof coaster brakes, puncture-resistant tires, and a rear rack designed to haul up to 220 pounds (100 kilograms), this bike is constructed for the dirt roads and wear-and-tear of daily life in rural Zambia. “This is what keeps F.K. up at night,” Missbach Day said with a chuckle. “We’re very dedicated to proper technology for the usage. I think we’re on improvement version 10 or 11!”
Now, the Buffalo is roaming seven African nations, from Sudan to South Africa, improving healthcare, education, and entrepreneurship for hundreds of thousands of adults and children by providing something so many of us take for granted: mobility.
For Missbach Day, the most profound experience has been seeing the impact the bicycle has for young girls. Because they are responsible for a number of household and childcare chores to complete in the morning, a bicycle can be the difference between attending or dropping out of school. “By the time they’re done with all that, they have to trot, not walk, their commute, which can be up to 7.5 miles (12 kilometers),” Missbach Day said. Many young girls arrive to the classroom late and exhausted, and, when they reach the pivotal years when tutoring would help them earn grades to get into high school, they’re unable to stay after hours and risk returning home in the dark.
“I used to go to the schools and ask the students about their hopes and dreams, what they wanted to be when they grow up — and got a lot of blank stares,” she added. “But, after the bicycle came into their lives, you’d ask that same question and they’d say, ‘I’m going to help my grandmother’s tomato farm make more money by bringing the produce to the market in the big town,’ or ‘I’m going to work on my father’s farm now that I can take the water pump to and from the garden every day.’”
The economic ripple effect is significant. Visiting a bicycle distribution center for healthcare workers on her recent trip, Missbach Day met a man who could barely contain his gratitude for the bike he’d been granted. “He told me ‘the bike gets my children to school, my vegetables to market, my family to the clinic – and it’s fun,’” she recalled. “Because he’s getting all his work done, he’s been going to sporting events, like netball and soccer. I wanted to jump up and down because the bicycle had also improved his quality of life.”
In fact, the bicycles are having such an impact that, beyond the direct humanitarian grants, World Bicycle Relief and its partners are now providing microfinance loans so more citizens can benefit from the Buffalo. For instance, World Bicycle Relief has more than 750 local field mechanics in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and “some of the field mechanics buy bikes, because they’re earning enough money now,” Missbach Day said. “World Bicycle Relief partners with a dairy co-op to supply the farmers with financed loans where the Buffalo bikes are bought over three-to-six months’ time. With the bike, dairy farmers can count on the profits from consistently bringing their milk, rather than having the milk spoil as they walk long distances, or can’t get in from the second milking due to lack of time in the day.”
Like Missbach Day, World Bicycle Relief has impacted residents in North America as well. Inspired by the visionary efforts in Africa, hundreds of bicycle enthusiasts have become individual fundraisers for World Bicycle Relief. Recently, the organization debuted its Africa Rides program: a weeklong experience during which participants build their own Buffalo bike and spend time riding with recipients in the villages where the bicycles are making a difference.
Connect with World Bicycle Relief recipients on an Africa Rides nine-day adventure. Partner with assemblers to build your own bike and ride along with entrepreneurs, healthcare workers, and students to see firsthand how bicycles can make an impact in rural Zambia. Opportunities to fund raise, donate, volunteer, ride, attend an event, or join a World Bicycle Relief team can be found online. worldbicyclerelief.org
Carolyn Szczepanski is the Director of Communications at the League of American Bicyclists and founder of the League’s Women Bike program. Before joining the League, Carolyn spent nearly 10 years as a print reporter.