Riding London to Cape Town and Discovering the Power of Bicycles

Emily Conrad-Pickles shares her journey and reminds us of the role a bicycle can play in a person's life. All images James Davis.

TWC contributor Emily Conrad-Pickles is riding from London to Cape Town to raise money for World Bicycle Relief. She outlined the start of the journey here, and gave us an update as she rode through Jordan here. She’s now almost reached the destination, here’s the story as she and her riding partner close down on the Cape, and a little more detail about the pivotal role bicycles can play in improving quality of life.

We’ve been on the road for nearly 9 months since we set off from London to cycle from London to Cape Town. We are now entering the final chapter of our journey and beginning to set our sights on Cape Town.

You could say it’s been a hell of a cycling adventure!

We’ve experienced many highs and lows since we last updated the TWC team on our progress 3 months ago. We’ve travelled through deserts, over mountains, into tropical rainforest and across dry African savannah. We’ve had temperatures souring up to 50 degrees Celsius and rain so heavy that it’s filled a tea mug in 20 minutes. We’ve also had a trip to a hospital, a cracked rib and yet more stomach upsets. You could say it’s been a hell of a cycling adventure! We are now back to full fitness and making great progress crossing Botswana in the company of wild animals and occasionally allowing ourselves to dream of that celebratory glass of wine in Cape Town!

Read: Emily meets and interviews Rwanda’s female pro cyclist 

Despite the ever-changing environments that we’ve travelled through, one thing has struck me about our journey so far: the power of bicycles. It’s actually the strapline of the charity World Bicycle Relief (Qubeka) that we are raising funds for, and these words have never felt more relevant. Since we entered East Africa, the bicycle has replaced the donkey as the chosen form of transport for many millions of Africans. Bicycles are used to get to school or work, as taxis and to carry an incredible variety and quantity of goods to and from the fields and markets.

We’ve seen sugar cane, firewood, charcoal, bricks, sofas, hay, rice, maize, chicken, people and even a motorbike being carried on bicycles, most of which don’t even have brakes. Without a bicycle, many millions of people across Africa would be trapped within their villages unable to get an education, have access to healthcare or expand their markets.

I’ve not seen any women on bicycles; just men. It is commonly believed… that riding a bike will result in a girl loosing their virginity.

What I’ve found even more striking, which I mentioned in a previous article about Team Rwanda, is that in many countries I’ve not seen any women on bicycles; just men. When I went in search of an answer as to why, I was flabbergasted at the response. I was told, quite plainly, that women work in the fields and men ride bicycles. Girls can’t ride a bike but when they reach puberty, it is commonly believed across many parts of Africa, and the world I believe, that riding a bike will result in a girl loosing their virginity. And, since many women focus their lives around having children, they stop riding bicycles. It’s a sad reality.

In fact, since we reached Zambia the women will cheer me along as I cycle whilst beaming the most wonderful smiles at me

When we reached Tanzania however, things seemed to change and throughout Tanzania and Zambia, we’ve enjoyed seeing many women and girls on bicycles. They are not carrying the vast loads that many of the men are but they are using their two wheeled companions to get to school, work or to travel to the market. In fact, since we reached Zambia the women will cheer me along as I cycle whilst beaming the most wonderful smiles at me. It’s been a very welcome change in attitude I cannot help but smile back and feel happy.

World Bicycle Relief (also known as Qhubeka in South Africa) was set up in 2005 by the founder of SRAM, F.K Day. Now well established across Africa, the charity uses bicycles to help mobalise people across the continent. They have a vision of a world where “Distance is no longer a barrier to independence and livelihood”. World Bicycle Relief has custom designed the Buffalo Bike, a bike designed for big loads on African roads. These bikes are designed to last, with parts that are compatible with what is available to buy on local markets so that they are easily repaired and maintained.

Studies that have been done in Uganda and Tanzania show that a bicycle can increase household income by up to 35 per cent and on a micro level, a bicycle can be seen as one of the best means of eradicating rural poverty within developing countries.

  • A bicycle can increase household income by 35 per cent
  • As well as supporting businesses, the programme funds bikes for students – 70 per cent of whom are female
  • In schools where children had Buffalo bikes, attendance improved by 27 per cent
  • In those same schools, performance was up 59 per cent

There are a few different ways in which people can get a WBR bicycle. There is the charitable arm where bicycles are donated to people in need of a machine – these people are usually students, teachers and healthcare workers. Then there are bikes that are bought by NGOs (e.g. Unicef) or Governments to give to people in need within their project areas – such as healthcare workers. Then there are bikes that local businesspeople can purchase via microfinance to travel to and from work, carry goods to market etc. In many instances (such as on large farms) employers will buy the bikes for their staff and take small repayments from their salary over time.

The UK arm of the charity, which we are supporting, funds the Bicycles for Education and Empowerment Program. This program funds bikes for students (70 per cent of which are female), teachers and education workers in rural Africa.

Unprompted, a local shop keeper told us how [having the bikes] had changed the lives of the entire village

In many rural areas children have to travel up to 10km each way to get to school, especially those wanting to continue onto secondary school. Students with bicycles will arrive at school safely and on time and, importantly, not exhausted from walking for two hours to get there. They will also be more likely to remain in education and WBR has found that grades and attendance rates improve after a student is given a bicycle. When students are given a Buffalo Bike, their family will also benefit, as they are able to use the bike outside of school hours. In a study that World Bicycle Relief conducted on a catchment area of 12 schools in Zambia who had benefited from Buffalo Bikes, it was discovered attendance improved by 27 per cent and performance by 59 per cent.

We stopped in one village which had been donated 200 Buffalo Bikes for children to get to school on. Unprompted, a local shop keeper told us how it had changed the lives of the entire village – he told us how the kids were now going to school but also how much the village had benefited from having access to bikes. To see the direct benefit that the charity is having was heartwarming.

It’s easy to forget how important a bicycle is when we use them for convenience and recreation but, having seen first hand just how powerful a bicycle is in rural Africa, it’s made me more passionate than ever to continue mobilizing women across Africa through the simple yet life changing gift of bicycle.

For now, it’s time to complete the final chapter of our journey which will take us across Botswana to the Namibian coast from where we will head directly south through the Namib desert to Cape Town. There is still 4,000km ahead of us and two months left to ride and we look forward to sharing our experiences when we’ve reached South Africa.

If you’d like to read about our past three months riding through Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia, please visit our London to Cape Town blog.

Emily and James have already raised enough funds to provide over 200 Buffalo Bicycles to women in Africa. If you feel inspired to support them please visit their World Bicycle Relief fundraising page.


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