Cycling toward mobility: World Bicycle Relief founders share story of their international nonprofit

Couple speaks at JHU's student-run Foreign Affairs Symposium, receives Anne Smedinghoff Award

If you ask someone in the U.S. about their transportation gripes, you're likely to hear complaints along the lines of, "My train was late" or "It took me forever to find parking."

Pose that question in rural Africa, and you'll only hear about walking, "sun up to sun down," said F.K. Day, founder of the World Bicycle Relief nonprofit. Reaching the most basic destination—a school, a market—can often take several hours and several miles.

"Imagine for a moment if you take someone who walks and give them access to a bike," Day said during Thursday's Foreign Affairs Symposium event at Johns Hopkins University. The time and effort saved is akin to "an industrial revolution in that individual's life," he said.

To date, World Bicycle Relief has distributed more than 289,500 bikes across 18 countries, aiding more than 1.45 million people.

That's the principle behind Day's international organization, which he co-founded with his wife, Leah Missbach Day, in 2005. To date, World Bicycle Relief has distributed more than 289,500 bikes across 18 countries, aiding more than 1.45 million people.

Although its efforts are centralized in Africa, the nonprofit was born in Sri Lanka in response to the devastating 2004 tsunami. Wanting to do more than just write a check, the couple took a trip to the area to look for more concrete ways to help. It was natural that Day's thinking turned to bikes: He is a co-founder of SRAM, a major bicycle components manufacturer in Chicago.

Distributing bikes to tsunami victims in Sri Lanka brought a range of positive results, with the majority of recipients using the bikes regularly to earn their livelihood or travel to school.

As these successes became more widespread, the couple was urged to expand the program to Africa. They took the advice, and today World Bicycle Relief is active in several countries there, including Zambia, Kenya, and Rwanda.

The focus is threefold: healthcare, education, and economic development.

Through one program, the bikes help health workers trained in HIV/AIDS care travel to meet their clients. The workers—who can keep the bikes contingent on their continued service—are able to travel greater distances and visit more people each day.

With education, World Bicycle Relief started a program in Zambia in 2009 distributing bikes to schoolchildren, who sometimes have to travel up to 15 miles to their schools. Girls are the focus, since they're more vulnerable to dropping out early. The program has demonstrated an increase with both school attendance and performance, as recipients commit to maintain both in order to retain their bikes.

Leah Missbach Day added that "confidence is really difficult to measure, yet it's one of the more beautiful results" for many girls.

To achieve economic development goals, World Bicycle Relief partners with local microfinance institutions in Africa to help entrepreneurs and family businesses buy bikes, which are commonly used to transport milk and vegetables to markets and to transport farm supplies to rural villages. Compared to walking, the bikes can help entrepreneurs travel four times further and carry five times more goods, increasing profits by 50 percent, the nonprofit estimates.

As for the bikes themselves, World Bicycle Relief manufactures them through its for-profit social enterprise, Buffalo Bikes, which operates six assembly plants in Africa. They've worked to develop a strong and durable model that can withstand the area's tough roads and brutal climate.

Going forward, the Days say they want World Bicycle Relief to distribute one million bikes per year.

The student-run Foreign Affairs Symposium honored the Days as recipients of this year's Anne Smedinghoff Award, which honors the memory of the 2009 Hopkins graduate who died while delivering textbooks to schoolchildren in Afghanistan three years ago this month.

During her time at Hopkins, Smedinghoff served as executive director of the Foreign Affairs Symposium. First-year student Jack Laylin, one of the group's current leaders, noted that the cycling organization is a particularly fitting recipient of the award: Immediately after graduating from Johns Hopkins, Smedinghoff spent a summer biking across the U.S. to raise funds for cancer research.