The Davos Challenge: bikes for school children in SA

When was the last time you walked 6km to work or school? Did you know that this is the average daily distance to school for half a million students in South Africa?

This past week, participants at the World Economic Forum took part in “The Davos Challenge: Walk for Education” by having their steps tracked with electronic pedometers. For every 6km walked, UBS and the UBS Optimus Foundation donated a bicycle for school children in South Africa. The aim of the Challenge was to provide 2500 bicycles to school children in South Africa with a thousand participants. “It was impressive to see participants` enthusiasm to put on Fitbits and walk the walk for education,” said Axel Weber, Chairman of UBS.

Collaborating on this initiative was the World Bicycle Relief and its founder F.K. Day, who was awarded Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. F.K. Day founded World Bicycle Relief ten years ago in post-Tsunami Sri Lanka. Whilst working for one of the largest global bicycle component manufacturers, SRAM Corporation, F.K. realized that reliable bicycle transportation could play a crucial role in access to education, healthcare and economic opportunity. World Bicycle Relief has been steadily growing ever since.

As a social entrepreneur, F.K explains how partnerships are crucial to success: “Everyone combines their expertise to guarantee the best outcome for the end user. This means, listening to and understanding the needs on the ground, designing the best and most rugged bicycle needed for the terrain, having the right distribution channels and securing the funding and expertise to reach as many people as possible.”

As of December 2014, the organization had distributed more than 220,000 bicycles and trained more than 1,000 field mechanics across Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. Within their largest programme, “Bicycles for Educational Empowerment”, 70% of the student bicycles are distributed to girl students in recognition of the importance of girls’ education.

Poor transport infrastructure combined with long distances to school mean that many children in Africa are not getting an adequate education and therefore are ill-equipped to fight the cycle of poverty. This cuts into their learning time or even stops them attending school altogether. Providing kids with robust bikes built for rugged country terrain can reduce their travel times by 75%, boosting attendance and educational achievement.

In 2014, World Bicycle Relief distributed more than 55,000 specially-designed bicycles with 2015 distribution estimates nearing 80,000. F.K. sees the demand that would support the organization’s growth to one million bicycles distributed by 2025.

For F.K., consistent engagement from supporters such as the Schwab Foundation, UBS and the World Economic Forum has been key to moving the organisation forward. As he put it: “Together we are committed to push the message on how to enable change and motivate people to get into action. We are grateful that so many Davos attendees took the challenge to heart and beat the goal set by UBS and the World Economic Forum.”

The work of World Bicycle Relief has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands by providing simple, sustainable bicycle transportation to students, teachers, healthcare workers and entrepreneurs.

F.K.’s message to leaders in Davos was: “Funding is essential, but look beyond your check book to your business expertise to see how you can help people by bringing your knowledge to the fight. Only then will extraordinary things happen.”

In a couple of days, I’ll join leaders from the worlds of business, governments, politics, arts, and academia at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The Forum is one of the premier events for discussing many if not most of these risks are identified in the Forum’s annual Global Risks report.

The report draws on the perspectives of roughly 900 experts and decision-makers answering the Global Risks Perception Survey. For the first time in the report’s 10-year history, economic risks take a back seat to geopolitical concerns, and worries about environmental risks are growing.

Conflict between nations and extreme weather events were seen as the top two risks we face that are most likely to occur, according to the survey. The top risks in terms of impact were water crises and the spread of infectious diseases.

By Tola Ketiku