My PhD is on community bike projects, so I read a lot of NGO policy. I came across an interesting NGO evaluation of a pilot study undertaken in Uttar Pradesh, India.
As a development professional, educator and community bike advocate, this report entitled: The distribution of Aquatabs through a bicycle entrepreneur model in rural India caught my eye.
Expectations .. ‘bicycle entrepreneur distribution model’
Having previously worked on health and community education programs in developing countries I’m always keen to see how development interventions integrate and use bicycles to further connect promote and support positive community outcomes.
When I saw the title of this report I got excited.
I’m always keen to see what is happening in India as it is a hub of social development innovation and experimentation.
I was also keen to read about the specific focus on the ‘distribution’ aspect of a ‘bicycle’ project – I was expecting to read a lot on the use of bicycles in the communities.
I had visions of local community health and WASH workers riding bicycles around rural communities distributing free water purification tablets increasing community awareness for hygiene and clean water practices.
The report is based on the 2011 pilot of PATH’s Safe Water Project. This project was focused on implementing innovative methods to enable commercial enterprises to produce, distribute, sell, and maintain effective household water treatment and storage (HWTS) products for low-income populations in developing countries. This project brief used ‘the bicycle entrepreneur distribution model’ – and it was one of the first of a number of pilot projects that PATH undertook in India and other countries to overcome distribution and marketing barriers that make it difficult for HWTS manufacturers to reach lower-income households and rural markets.
So I had a look at the report.
After scanning through the first 20 pages, the frown that had formed on my brow got deeper and more pronounced.
I found the contents of the report challenging to read.
There was scarce little detail as to the use of bicycles. Ultimately, the only reference to the use of bicycles in the whole report was that the 8 salesmen used bicycles to travel around to sell the product.
That was it. That was the extent of how bicycles were used in this project.
Talk about a let down!
It had no detail about if bicycles were provided free of change, at a discount rate, were part of a team fleet, or if the ‘salesmen’ got to keep the bike afterwards. Nothing!
Sadly, the report was squarely focused on ascertaining commercial marketing and private sector avenues for product sales (of Aquatabs) – and not on assessing the ‘distribution’ or ‘bicycle model’ aspect of the project.
As I read the report, it seems decidedly incongruent with the ‘safe water for rural lower-income communities’ and NGO approach I was expecting to read. The report reads more like a business/economic assessment of a failed marketing case study rather than the bicycles-helps-developing-community first impression I had. Bummer!
I skimmed over the content as I looked for the content I was interested in – which was how bicycles were used.
I found this on page 7…
In this model, BEs sold Aquatabs to rural consumers at weekly markets and through house-to-house visits.
The model was implemented in 200 villages with approximately 67,000 households ver a 12-month period (May 2009 April 2010). Eight BEs serviced this area on bicycles, following pre-determined routes and schedules. The BEs were recruited, trained, and supervised by MART and were paid a monthly stipend of Rs 1,500 in addition to their earnings from Aquatabs sales margins.
Then this on page 18..
‘Peddlers’ or ‘health champions’?
I did smile at the irony of a comment regarding training, support and monitoring, whereby:
“Additionally, the BEs felt that their current job lacked pride because they were perceived as “peddlers” (telewalah) rather than health champions, and this limited their ability to interact with local leaders as well as with the community” (p 40).
(Get it…’peddlers’ or ‘bicycle salesmen’..oh dad! Definitely cultural/vocab humour!)
Where was the ‘bicycle entrepreneur model’ in all this??
In my view, if the bicycle model term was important enough to put into the report heading, it is important enough to explain in more detail that what was provided.
Why is the mode of transportation used to get around important to mention in this project? You don’t see equivalent ‘walking entrepreneur model’ or ‘minibus entrepreneur model’ or ‘(insert mode of transport here) entrepreneur model’ – so what make the bicycle so special to mention here? And if it is special to mention – it’s reasoning needs to be better explained.
It is logical that bicycles would be used in developing contexts for project staff to travel in and around villages. Is this idea still such a revelation that it is still a new idea for NGO practice? I should think not! I was surprised that this was such a basic project feature was so prominently highlighted, yet not explained in this report.
I thought…Maybe it was bad report writing. Maybe the title was deliberately chosen to attract a certain audience. I couldn’t help but be a little miffed by ‘bicycle’ being in the report title where there was no further explanation of its use, especially considering the connotation of bicycles being synonymous with local, grassroots community development.
I felt this was taking the bicycle’s name in vain.
It kind of felt like false advertising. It was akin to supermarkets putting fresh produce into ‘green packaging’, relabelling it as ‘fresh farm produce’ and then charging double to capitalise on the current wholefood/vegan/natural eating health trend.
I ended up having to look elsewhere to find a Project Brief Document that provided some point of reference at least for the role that bicycles had in this project – which was minimal anyway. Surely this should have been in the assessment report? Even after finding this separate document, there was still a lack of detail about the provision, ownership and handover of the bicycle.
Below is as much info about how bicycles were used in this project as the NGO provided:
Note to self: Be wary of how ‘bicycles’ are represented in NGO and development documents.
What a disappointing report!
It was a salient reminder for me about the variation in approaches, purposes and communication styles of NGO programs. Equally, although bicycles are used in some NGOs projects, it is not always in the most productive and positive manner – sometimes bikes are just used to ride and get around!
Equally, although bicycles are used in some NGOs projects, it is not always in the most productive and positive manner.
It was a good lesson – a reminder to be vigilant and judicious when seeing that a ‘bicycle’ is included in a project somewhere. Be sure to look more closely and see to what degree the bicycle is actually used before automatically assuming the project is ‘good’ just on the basis that a bicycle is mentioned.
Despite my personal reservations, I am always supportive of more bicycles being used in communities.
Notwithstanding my critique of this particular report, it is still good to see bicycles being better recognised and incorporated into INGO community project discussions.
Viva la use of bicycles to promote greater health and community development!