NGOs – Don’t take the bicycle’s name in vain!

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.


NGOs - don't take the bicycle name in vain - Bicycles Create
Source: PATH (2011).

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.

Then this…

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..

NGOs - dont take the bicycle name in vain - Bicycles Create

‘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:

NGOs - dont take the bicycle name in vain - Bicycles Create

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!

Yoga for cyclists

This last week I returned from an (informal) 3-day ‘yoga for cyclists’ retreat.

I say ‘informal retreat’ because we actually to visit an old school friend of husband’s and his gorgeous partner at a spectacular property in Dunoon, NSW. And I say ‘for cyclists’ because both husband and I have been riding bike recreationally and competitively for a number of years now.

Luckily for us, our delightful host couple have just recently returned from an extended stay in India, where they were living in a yoga ashram to undertake their yoga instructors course (hence ‘retreat’!).

It goes without saying that staying with them was blissful, gentle and wonderfully restorative.

Yoga for cyclists!  Start the day right!

We were up at 5 am for an hour of meditation, then two hours of yoga followed by some more meditation – all before breakfast.

What a way to start each day!

Although I still did some reading for my PhD, I did not ride during this trip as I just wanted to invest in some quality rest and relaxing downtime. To this end, I was really just a love sponge for the amazing views, good company, scrumptious veggo food and stunning campfire-under-an-endless-night-sky vibes (*sigh*!).

Best of all, we did yoga every day – and I mean good yoga!

We did all the yoga poses you would get in classes, but also held some for considerably longer. Plus, we did a variety of yogic purification breathing techniques that I have not tried before – super interesting!

An additional bonus was that both our hosts team-taught each session, which was brilliant for the balance of yin/yang – male/female energies.


Given years of competitive and recreational mountain bike riding, this daily yoga practice really drove home how tight my thighs and hips were – and how important regular stretching is.

A month of yoga (for cyclists) challenge

Since returning, I have committed to a month’s yoga challenge – with a focus on unlocking and releasing the years of stored up cycling tension (it might take a while!). After my initial month trial ends,  our two yoga hosts suggested to check out their ashram’s online yoga practice.

Their ashram, Akhanda has a number of yoga classes free online as well as a private youtube channel, which for $10 a month, you are able to access to a series of yoga sessions (5 x 30 mins per week, or 5 x 60 mins per week, etc.).

Overall impacts thus far?

I am feeling so much better for doing daily yoga and will definitely continue.  I have really enjoyed the progress I have made in the last eight days and can feel the difference in my legs, hips and torso. I feel a lot stronger, more centred and have noticed a considerable improvement in the range of movement in my hips.

This month’s yoga for cyclists challenge serves as a timely reminder to slow down and to explore alternative approaches to getting stronger.

Maybe some days, if it is raining outside and you are not up for a ride, you can work in, instead of work out! (Oh no, dad!).

So if you have not done yoga lately, here is one of the better of many popular yoga classes designed specifically for cyclists to get started.

I hope you have fun and get as much satisfaction out of it as I am! Enjoy!

Cycling from India to Sweden for love

Thanks CT for recommending this story as a post. This story is the perfect mix of all the good things that this blog celebrates- community, adventurousness and positive people making remarkable changes – but most importantly, how bicycles help people not only come together – but flourish as a result.  Reading about PK and Lottie really lifted my spirits and reminded me to be grateful for all the good things in life – and especially those that come on two wheels!

This post features a heartwarming tale of a serendipitous meeting, creativity, travel, hope, love and the bicycle ride that brought two lovers from opposite sides of the world together (*sigh*)!

For me, it brought up lots of happy memories of riding with family, friends and loved ones, the unique exhilaration, and opportunities that travel provides and how you should never give up on your dreams.

Cycling from India to Sweden for love

You may have heard of this tale; it is about PK (then a young Indian artist) and Lottie (a Swedish backpacker) who met in India while Lottie was travelling here in the mid-1970s. They met by chance and instantly fell in love. This is a picture of them now, over 35 years later.


Cycling from India to Sweden for love
Source: The Guardian – PK and Lotta in Sweden, where they live. Photograph: Scanpix Norway/Press Association Images

After a whirl-wind romance, Lottie had to return home. Missing each other terribly, PK decided to take fate into his own hands and embark on an 8,000 kms overland bike ride from India to Sweden to be with her again.

The full story of their initial meeting, PK’s bike journey and what has transpired since, is an epic story in itself- the details of which you can read more about here.

Ultimately, over 35 years later they are still happily married – and still riding bikes!

Love life, love bikes, love lovers

In a world that broadcasts so much doom and gloom, this story was a lovely reprieve. There are so many elements of PK and Lottie’s story that many of us can identify with. For those of us who have travelled overseas, or who cycle, or who have fallen madly in love their life (or all three!) wonderfully reaffirming love story.

I was also really touched by PK’s unwavering positivity and commitment to making their dreams come true. Unfortunately, it is quite rare these days to see a couple exude such genuine joyfulness and love for each other – and for life in general.

Which makes this story even more important.

It is a wonderfully reaffirming love story (for them) and a reaffirming life story as well (for us).

May each of us love well.

And may we all ride courageously

to make happen,

the things that make us most happy.

Bihar – Mukhyamantri Cycle Yogina

While reading though some research for my Lit Review, I came across this article: Ghatak, M., Kumar, C., & Mitra, S. (2013). Cash versus kind: Understanding the preferences of the bicycle-programme beneficiaries in Bihar. London, UK: International Growth Centre.

I have previously posted about this program, as it looks like a great initiative, so I was interested to read more about it, but was shocked by a few of the program details and findings that (of course) were not included in this programs’  previous promotions.

Review of the report.

This article is looking at cash transfer schemes and specifically using one case study, the Bihar Mukhyamantri Cycle Yogina (Chief Minister’s Bicycle Programme) a Cash for Kind (Bicycle) program to discuss some of the preferences of the bicycle beneficiancies of this program. It is not analyzing the program as such, although some interesting program results are given which I will expand on, but this paper is looking at to the recipients prefer to get the cash or the bicycle – and why.

Cash for Kind program are where the government disperses cash to recipients, who then use the cash to access a certain ‘kind’ of goods (or service) – usually something that is predetermined and linked as a condition for receiving the cash – in this case the money was to purchase a bicycle for all 9th grade students enrolled in school.

This report is 22 pages, so I am not going to give you all the results and details, but here is a few of the more interesting aspects of the report.

Program Background

The Bihar bike program is a well-known Indian program which provided ALL the 14 year-old girls (9th grade) in the whole state with bicycles. Bihar is one of India’s Eastern States that boarders Nepal and is considered to be one of the most impoverished states in India. The Mukhyamantri Cycle Yogina originally started in 2006 and provided Rs 2,400 for purchasing bicycles but was only for the girls. In 2009-2010 the program was expanded to include all the boys in the state of the same age and for the academic year of 2011-2012 the cash was increased to Rs 2500 per student. In 2012 – 2013, a conditional change was made that only students who maintained a 75% attendance at school were eligible.

So this report is a follow up of this program and was undertaken Sept – Oct 2012 over 36 villages and involved surveying 840 households (as a representative sample of the whole district) of which 958 bike recipients lived (some households had more than one child in the program).

Some of the key results

  • Do the benefits reach the intended beneficiaries – overall, yes.
  • Overall 90% of the beneficiaries reported being happy with this program (no grievances)
  • Issues of corruption – corruption can occur by various actors at various stages, but for this program it was difficult to do and corruption was considered to be very low.

Corruption opportunities:

  •  Ghost beneficiaries
  •  Enrolled in multiple schools – double benefits
  •  Was the accurate amount of $$ received?
  •  Receiving other benefits/services (not a bike)
  • Program administrators skimming a commission by using their own voucher or coupon system
  • Even though there were areas where corruption could occur, not much did with 93.3% reporting having received the correct amount – meaning 56 households received less than they were entitled to.
  • Results show that 98% of those who received the cash/voucher used it as required to purchase a new bicycle – over the course of a whole state – that is a pretty amazing result.
  • 45% said they would prefer cash instead of a bicycle

Rest of the report – some scary details

The rest of the report discusses the determinates of why certain households choose a preference between cash and kind (bicycle) – for example the quality of the bike was mentioned as one of the determinants for choosing cash or bike.

In the discussion, the report indicates a few interesting and very disturbing features of this program.

  • For example, one of the supply side conditions, and the way the program was set up, was that the beneficiaries were provided with cash (provided by the state, but distributed by the teachers at school), then they went out and purchased a bicycle with that cash and brought back the receipt as evidence of a bike purchase. Interestingly, this was not how the full program was implemented. Some districts deviated from this system and 30% of the beneficiaries were required to submit a receipt BEFORE they received the cash for the bike.

This meant 3 things: 1. People had to either purchase the bike with their own money, or 2. Get a fake receipt and 3. This would put extra financial strain on the poorest of the poor, of which this program was trying to help, but forcing into a compromised situation.

  • There were huge delays of payment to the recipients of up to 6-months.
  • Most troubling is, that the program provided an inadequate amount of money to purchase a bike in the first place – 98% of beneficiaries had to add money a significant amount of money to the program cash to buy a bike – on average Rs 979.
  • The market price for the three CHEAPEST bike brands in the area Atals, Avon and Hero (of which about 80% of the beneficiaries selected) range in price of Rs 3100 – 3300, but the government supplied only Rs 2500 – meaning that pretty much all of the recipients had to make up the difference themselves. For the richer households this comes out of savings, for the poorer families – this puts them further into debt, with 25% of all the recipients having to BORROW money to buy a bike – thus indebting them into poverty even further.

And this report states that 90% of the recipients were happy with the program!!??

Don’t get me wrong, the program is ambitious on many levels and you cannot get everything right – and the premise of supplying a new bike to increase school access is something I am very supportive of. However, ethically I have a major problem with programs whose conditionality has a direct and immediate negative consequence for the recipients when program organisers tout the program a success.

Such an error is easily rectifiable with A) doing the right homework to find out how much money is actually needed to buy a bike before implementation and B) increasing the government’s allocation to all beneficiaries if the program is already in effect.

Loan sharks anyone?

The report acknowledges that there is a ‘trade-off between universality and corruption’ meaning that beneficiary needs need to be balanced with the level of leakage and corruption. But given the opening stats  on the low corruption level for this program (98% of recipients got the right amount of cash = no corruption), it is hardly justifiable to decrease the reimbursement amount so much that being involved in the program diminishes the possible benefits to such a point where the needs of the beneficiaries are negatively compounded now three fold from having borrowed money to be in the program. Loan sharks anyone?

As a community development practitioner, I find these kind of programs disturbing, as many of them look good in the NGO reports and social media, but by digging a little deeper there are some interesting lessons to be learnt for future review, modifications and application.

I appreciate that this program is on a massive scale and is one of the first of its kind in the world, but critical features such as supplying the correct amount are basic provisions that should have been addressed before implementation.

I would be very interested to hear the rational given for this cash transfer amount for this program.


Billions in Change – Free Electric

Billionaire entrepreneur Manoj Bhargava has a philanthropist side project, Billions in Change, which could well be set to change the lives of half the world’s population. Aside from giving 90% of his money to the Giving Pledge charity, he is also very heavily involved and passionate developing approaches to address issues of poverty and energy resource equity through Free Electric.

The focus of Billions in Change is “to build a better future by creating and implementing solutions to serious problems facing the world in the areas of water, energy and health.” This project has produced a series of quite remarkable innovations that aim to address these issues and increase the quality of life for the world’s poorest people.

Free Electric Bike

Billions of Change looks at three major global problems: Health, Water and Energy. To address the issue of energy – the project’s website outlines their solution as “The Free Electric machine gives people the power to generate electricity themselves – pollution free. The machine is small, light and simple. Here’s how it works: A person pedals a hybrid bicycle. The bicycle wheel drives a flywheel, which turns a generator, which charges a battery. Pedaling for one hour yields electricity for 24 hours with no utility bill, and no exhaust, no waste.”

Manoj’s company makes some impressive claims:

  • They will be able to produce these bikes in India for under $200 per unit – making it much more affordable for local councils, communities, schools and NGOs in developing countries – especially if resources and finances are pooled and shared.
  • 25 bikes have already been installed at no charge to a sample of energy-poor households, schools, and small businesses in Indian villages close to Lucknow, Amethi and Raebareli to assess functionality.
  • Manoj has collaborated “with a local distributor and non-profit group to help with assembly and to train others on how to assemble and troubleshoot the bike. We’re also conducting pre/post surveys with recipients to learn their perspectives on the benefits of the bike, as well as to get their feedback about how we can improve it” .
  • Later this year, there is a pilot plan to implement 10,000 of these bikes in India.

It is quite exciting to think that such a contraption has the potential to literally revolutionize the lives of so many people – the fact that it is not a conception or theoretical model, but has actually been manufactured – is a massive step towards production for greater practical utility and for streamlining the design for cheaper and easier implementation.

This is yet another innovation similar to the bicycle-washing machine from a previous post, which seems to show that India and bicycle innovations have a very strong affinity for each other to create positive change.

Full Documentary

There is a post on Treehugger which gives some more details about this project – and it was there that I also saw that  there is a full Billions of Change documentary (45 min) which outlines Free Electric, and also details some other inventive approaches that his Lab called Stage 2 Innovations has also created, such as the Rain Maker seawater car, and the geothermal Limitless Energy resource among other designs.

Bihar- Girls Bicycle Education Scheme

Bihar – Girls Bicycle Education Scheme

Can giving free bikes get more girls to stay in school? The Bihar Girls Bicycle Education Scheme in India was sponsored by researchers, Karthik Muralidharan (University of California, San Diego) and Nishith Prakash (University of Connecticut), who investigated the effect of providing every schoolgirl aged 14 in Bihar with a bike.

The Results

The results of this bicycle program, launched in 2006, were impressive and immediate. It increased girls’ age-appropriate enrollment in secondary school by 30 percent and reduced the gender gap in age-appropriate secondary school enrollment by 40 percent (Muralidharan and Prakash, 2013). Most significant for me were two main aspects: first, it was undertaken in the poorest, most destitute state in India and second, the scale of the program, which was massive to say the least. Both these aspects make the project not only unique, but seminal, as it sets a precedence for future work to undertaken now that the location and volume have been shown not be to a hinderance in rolling out such programs.

From research to videos

To find out more about the research behind the 6 minute video Moving up a gear (below), you can read: Cycling to school: Increasing high school enrollment for girls in Bihar

Muralidharan and Prakash have since create a second follow-up video: Moving Up A Gear: Update. which provides extra information and a update.

To further explain their approaches, there is a number of papers that have been published to explain the research that provides analysis and monitoring for this scheme – as well as other documentation where the main research is more fully explained.

Bicycle Washing Machine

Initiative: When Remya Jose was 14, she invented a bicycle –powered washing machine to help her do the family washing. With women traditionally doing the household chores, Remya and her sister had to take over the family washing after both parents were too ill to work. Hand washing Indian style is usually done in rural waterways that are away from the home and it is a time-consuming, physically demanding and labour intensive activity. Previously Remya’s family did not have a washing machine. After seeing other locals in her town of Kizhattoor Panchayat, India, use a few electrical washing machines, she fashioned her design based on the same principles, but added pedals as the power source so that no electricity was needed. The ‘washer’ is seated behind the machine on a seat so that when they cycle, a chain rotates a mesh cylinder inside a central aluminum box. It now takes Remya only about 20 minutes to soak, wash and rinse clothes. She designed it herself and with help, it was made from parts that were sourced locally.

 Effectiveness: This simple yet effective modification is a great example of what I consider to be the most effective, sustainable and powerful community change: one where the problem is self-identified by the community; a solution is self-initiated and implemented and  there is no reliance on external people, materials or skills in order to maintain the result. Such practices are a move in the right direction to reduce criticisms that aid perpetuates a culture of dependency and expectations, and that communities are best left alone to deal with and overcome their own problems without external intervention.

Connection: Furthermore, as Easterly (2008) points out, it is the people who are creative and experimental in trialing alternative ways to solving community problems (like Remya), who are usually more effective in alleviating poverty associated issues as opposed to those who invest copious amounts of energy, time and money into approaches that have no immediate results and/or are not locally contextualized.

Take away: This story is also a humble reminder for us Westerners of the lies we tell ourselves, like: ‘I don’t know how to fix it’, ‘I haven’t got the money’, ‘I don’t have the time’, ‘It’s quicker just to buy a new one’ – are all too easy and such thinking does not create positive change. But ingenious action will.

As this story exemplifies, training, education and money is often no match for being resourceful, shrewd and confident. I think it is a pity that such valuable skills are not promoted and taught within our community.

Where in your life do you apply cheap, innovative and functional solutions to problems?


Easterly, W., 1957, & ebrary, I. (2008). Reinventing foreign aid (1st ed.). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.