Feature

The missing Linke

G Magazine

The western world is dumping used bicycles at an astounding rate, while poor African communities need bicycles for everyday transport and health services. Michael Linke is the man bridging the gap.

Michael Linke with his family

Michael Linke with his family.

Bikes-in-Africa-profile

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In Zambia an orphanage is using the profits from its bike shop to plant hectares of maize that will feed its children. In remote Namibian villages bikes are being offered as incentives for HIV testing, with clinics reporting a six-fold increase in the number of people willing to be tested. Making it all happen is Australia’s Michael Linke, Managing Director of Namibia’s Bicycles Empowerment Network (BEN), a not for profit organization aimed at recycling pushbikes to provide transport, health services and sustainable business opportunities to some of Africa’s poorest and most isolated communities.

It began with a simple plan to backpack around the world. In 2000, armed with an open mind and a penchant for pedal power, Michael Linke aged 28, left his job, his family, friends and his homeland to travel. Little did he know that bikes, a global business venture and a Brazilian wife and work partner, as well as two kids, were all part of the future.

A stint in London landed him a job with a rickshaw hire company, an organization set up to help young people get employment. Riding the rickshaws, maintaining the bikes and managing the riders proved to be a lot of fun, but Linke was soon looking for something to sink his teeth into.

“When I was living in Hamburg I noticed an old bike chained to a lamp post which started me thinking about new ways to use this under-utilised resource. The more I traveled, the more abandoned bikes I saw, so I began researching charities that were using bikes which led me to South Africa.”

After seeing how the Bicycling Empowerment Network worked there, he spent three months in Namibia researching the viability of a bike distribution project before returning to the UK to start fundraising. In poor communities where the only mode of transport is walking, bikes can increase carrying capacity five times, increase the distance a person can travel by four times and save approximately three hours for every ten miles traveled.

The first container of bicycles arrived in Namibia from the UK in July 2005. “I rented a 400 sq. m warehouse and when the 321 bikes arrived my first thought was ‘What have I done?’ Eighteen thousand bikes later, that first shipment doesn’t seem like such a big deal.”

Linke, now 38, learnt early that simply giving bikes to people didn’t work. A Namibian working for the equivalent of $5 a month would find bike maintenance costs prohibitive, so the focus of the program soon turned to establishing bike shops, selling the bikes as cheaply as possible to working locals who
can afford and maintain them, guaranteeing long term use and care of the bicycles.

“Bike shops give people ownership of the project. Operators can generate sufficient income to buy their own stock and communicate with each other and their suppliers. It becomes sustainable. The bicycle shop becomes an entry point for learning other business skills. The young woman who runs our first bike shop had never touched a computer when we first met her. Now, she communicates directly with her overseas bike suppliers via email and contacts me on a weekly basis through skype.”

Using his bike shop business model Linke is supporting other donor dependent organizations by providing them with income earning opportunities. His latest project involves an orphanage in Zambia which has chosen to plant 14 hectares of maize from their bike shop profits. The maize will provide food for the children and the excess will be sold.

Linke broadened the scope of his plans to include improved access to health care for Namibians. Health care workers use the bikes to visit clients, to carry medication and basic sanitary supplies or to transport people to hospital. Seeing patients in advanced stages of AIDS being transported to hospital on bikes, strapped to basic luggage racks motivated Linke to design a bike ambulance.

“I built the first one out of scrap steel. Several prototypes later we have 100 ambulance bikes in Namibia which are used for everything from scorpion bites to high blood pressure to domestic violence and HIV related illnesses.”

The reality of medical emergencies in Namibia is that there is a 1 in a 100 chance that the ambulance will turn up. It might take three days for it to arrive which can be the difference between life and death.

“On my last field visit I met a nurse in a small clinic in a remote rural area who told me about a fight in a community about 2 km away. One guy had basically sliced the stomach of another. His intestines were hanging out. The nurse packed the intestines back into the guy and took him to the clinic on the bike ambulance. The patient survived.”

Linke’s work with health care clinics puts him in contact with rural doctors who regularly voice their frustration at the unwillingness of males to undergo HIV testing. Routine testing of pregnant women is used as a means of tracking HIV positive males who would otherwise remain undiagnosed and untreated.

“I jokingly suggested to one doctor that a bicycle could be offered as an incentive for men to come in for testing. Coincidentally the same day I passed an American Peace Corp volunteer who was giving away soccer balls to those presenting for HIV testing. She agreed to offer a basic mountain bike as a prize. Her numbers went through the roof; from 49 tests a month to 300. We progressed to giving bikes away at all HIV testing centres which resulted in 4000 more people being tested across the country. This is how much people value bikes here.”

The value for Linke however lies in witnessing the way bike shops have changed lives. He talks of one employee, a mother of two, who unbeknown to him was suffering from AIDS. Unable to afford food, her anti-viral medication was causing debilitating side effects. She was suicidal. Earning an income at the bike shop allowed her to source good nutrition which improved her health. She has since passed on her acquired business skills to her daughters by sourcing sweets and cosmetics for them to sell to their school mates to earn pocket money.

New ventures are never far from Linke’s thoughts and plans are well underway for launching Kata Tours, a bike tourism project that will conduct small group tours of Katatura, a former “all-black” area of Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. The area is of significant historical interest, but is difficult for tourists to access. The project will initially employ one tour guide, a young Namibian woman with a background in tourism, plus several bike mechanics.

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Want to help? For details of how your old bike (or money donation) can be used to help others visit www.bicycles-for-humanity.org. For more information on Michael Linke’s programs visit www.benbikes.org.za/namibia.