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Helping Africa, ‘One Bicycle at a Time’

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Two recent graduates of Azusa Pacific University are bringing bikes, jobs, and hope to Zambia.

In the summer of 2004, a young entrepreneur named Vaughn Spethmann struggled to stay on the bent seat of the rusted bicycle he had borrowed from a local as he pedaled down a red clay road in Zambia. Less than five years later, Spethmann and his Zambian friends can be found racing down those same clay roads on new bikes that have been manufactured by his nonprofit organization, Acirfa.

The history of Acirfa traces its roots to Spethmann’s 2004 bike ride. That summer, he and Acirfa cofounder Dustin McBride were visiting Zambia on a humanitarian trip run by their college, Azusa Pacific University, a Christian school located just outside Los Angeles. “We left thinking, ‘How can we help?’” Spethmann says. “When we returned to school, Dustin and I were in a business class together, which required us to come up with a plan for a company. So we decided to work together on something that may make a difference.”

Spethmann recalls his bike ride on his last day in Zambia. “I could barely ride the bike. The rims and the seat were bent and the spokes were missing. It was something we in America would’ve easily thrown away. And I was told that that bike cost $200.” He and McBride developed a business plan that would address the need for affordable bikes in Zambia. Because public transportation in Zambia is overcrowded and unreliable, bicycles provide a vital means of transportation. The Spethmann-McBride idea received national attention at the 2006 Urbana Open for Business Conference. Participating in this conference gave them the confidence to launch their nonprofit after graduation in 2007; it also helped them secure a few key donors and board members. Their organization, whose name is Africa spelled backwards, set out to “turn Africa around one bicycle at a time” by providing high-quality bikes to underprivileged Zambians.

Unlike many U.S.-based nonprofits working in Africa, Acirfa is not simply offering handouts. Rather, it has established a for-profit bike distribution business in Zambia called Zambikes, which is selling bicycles to local individuals and organizations at a subsidized price. Thanks to Acirfa, Zambians are now able to purchase new, well-built bikes for $140. And for those who cannot afford the bikes, Acirfa is partnering with other groups to provide microloans. “We’ve raised funds here in the U.S. with the purpose not to create a dependency-based charity but to build a Zambian-run enterprise,” says Acirfa’s U.S.-based executive director, Jon Axtell. “That’s what’s unique about us. We’ve created a system that says, ‘I’ll meet you in the middle.’”

Acirfa is a part of a movement in the business and philanthropic sectors known as social entrepreneurship. While not a new concept, social entrepreneurship is a relatively recent term that has been applied to businesses that play a role in supporting social or humanitarian causes. Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, an association committed to promoting social entrepreneurship, has described such organizations as “critical to our future.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus was one of the first social entrepreneurs to achieve global celebrity. In 1976, Yunus founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which popularized microcredit as a solution to poverty. All told, it has provided loans to nearly 8 million Bangladeshis. Spethmann and McBride have applied the same principle of microcredit to their own efforts with Acirfa, and they have already seen results.

Unlike many U.S.-based nonprofits working in Africa, Acirfa is not simply offering handouts. Rather, it has established a for-profit bike distribution business in Zambia called Zambikes, which is selling bicycles to local individuals and organizations at a subsidized price.

“We can shift the mindset of dependency when we show Zambians they are capable of more,” Spethmann says. For example, two local Zambians who bought bikes approached Spethmann and McBride and asked to borrow money so they could take their coal from their rural home into the city. Spethmann and McBride lent them each $6. “Within three weeks, they made $130,” McBride says. “Keep in mind that the average daily income for a Zambian is $2. They each bought 12 acres of land and started working their own farms.”

“Zambia is one of the richest countries in Africa as far as natural resources. It is rich in copper, coal, and hydropower. But for the past 20 years the country has been conditioned to rely on handouts,” Axtell notes. “It’s sad because you see the loss of dignity that’s resulted from that. Now, there’s a sense that they can’t do things on their own.”

Zambia, home to 11.5 million people, faces many economic woes. The unemployment rate is estimated to be a staggering 50 percent. Currently, 15.2 percent of Zambians between the ages of 15 and 49 of age are living with HIV/AIDS,and more than 750,000 Zambian children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

Zambia, formerly known as Northern Rhodesia, won independence from British rule on October 24, 1964. During the colonial era, the British set up huge commercial farms and copper mines. When they left in 1964, the new government adopted a form of African socialism. The mines and other private businesses were nationalized, and initially the economy experienced favorable growth. However, when global copper prices began to decline in the mid-1970s, Zambia entered a downward economic spiral.

To deal with the crisis, the country took out big loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Privatization of its copper mines in the 1990s helped boost economic growth, but Zambia still relies heavily on outside assistance. In 2005 and 2006, it accepted $1.1 billion in development aid.

“We need to develop our people—having natural resources isn’t enough,” says Wankunda Mutala,a native Zambian who serves on Acirfa’s board of directors. He met Spethmann and McBride while pursuing an MBA at Azusa Pacific University. “People can throw money at us like they have for the last 40 years,” Mutala says. “But it won’t change unless we get engaged in the process. This model is something that is practical. It gives people employment, training skills, and empowers people to go out and start their own businesses.”

Acirfa is now in the process of building a manufacturing facility in Zambia. Last year, Zambikes sold 250 bikes, which arrived from China partially assembled. Well-known bike designer Daryl Funk traveled to the Acirfa facility in Lusaka West to train more than 30 local Zambians in bike mechanics. Funk has also held welding workshops for the mechanics and begun to help the workers fabricate bike frames. “Now we’re moving towards vertical integration,” says Axtell. “Our third shipment this year of 1,000 bikes will be just bike parts, so that we can do more in-country assembling, which is providing more jobs for high-skilled labor.”

Spethmann and McBride hope that within the next few years, Zambikes will be run exclusively by Zambians. “We’ve made incredible growth in the last year,” says Spethmann. “Just before I left Zambia last week, eight of our mechanics gave me their own small business proposals for everything from charcoal to egg enterprises. That’s why we’re doing this.”

Jenna Schuette is a senior at Azusa Pacific University and a former intern at the American Enterprise Institute.


Image courtesy of Acirfa.


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