Having given up her job in 2011, Zoe Ives and her partner Bruce spent two months in India and came back with an idea for a new business – selling Indian Bikes.
Everyone prepares you for the cultural shock when you visit India: how busy it is, the colours and the traffic but no one ever mentioned just how many bicycles there are on the roads. When you travel from place to place you find different manufacturers in each town, so in one area all the bikes are dark green and you move to the next place and there is a different colour, for example every single bike in Tamil Nadu is a bright turquoise colour.
We’re not part of the lycra brigade but before we went to India we did cycle every day to work. It was more cycling as part of our lifestyle than as a hobby. We loved the bikes we saw and thought about bringing one home but the postage was so expensive that we’d never manage to do it. Months later when we arrived back in the UK we were discussing the bikes and realised that people over here would really love them too.
We started doing some research and found out that nobody actually imports them so we looked at loads of manufacturers and Bruce returned to India to do a tour of lots of different factories to find top-quality bicycles made by a company with ethical and sustainable work practice. We chose KW, which is a business run by a Sikh family. There are four different buildings in the factory and each one is run by a different member of the family. We are lucky to have a fantastic relationship with them.
Most of the machinery to make the bikes comes from Nottingham, which was once the UK’s biggest bicycle-making city. When the factories there started to close, machinery was bought by KW and shipped out to India. All the bicycles at the KW Ludhiana factory are hand-made by skilled workers using traditional methods.
The Indian bicycles are fabulous commuter bikes, they are great for carrying things. They are low maintenance as little goes wrong with them and they are very strong. It’s not going to suit a hilly ride as they are heavy but we really encourage people to come and have a go as it’s a really different riding experience, it’s like being on a limousine. As the front wheel is much further forward it feels very different to ride – you feel very regal!
I’ve always worked in the charity sector and that is why we looked at the idea of giving the business a charitable arm. As we travelled around India we realised that there are some places where you don’t see any women on bicycles and then every so often you come across one place where the streets are literally filled with schoolgirls on bikes. It was really really noticeable. I’ve worked in schools in Africa and Vietnam and feel passionately about the right to stay in education, especially for women. We found that there were programmes in some states where girls were having bikes donated to them to keep them in education.
Although school is free, the transport in rural areas can be very expensive. In these areas around 50% of girls have dropped out of education by the age of ten. We decided that this was something we wanted to support and found the Mann Deshi Foundation which works in the Maharashtra district of India.
The Mann Deshi Foundation is part of a micro-finance bank run by women for women. We support their freedom ride project where they offer interest-free loans to families to purchase a bike, and where families can’t afford this they donate bicycles. For every ten bicycles we sell we donate one to the foundation. We also donate £10 from every print sold on our website to the Foundation as well. The Mann Deshi Foundation has provided more than 2,450 girls with bicycles since the programme started.
You can find The Indian Bicycle Shop at Portabello Road Market most Saturdays, and on their website.