This post is part of a series of stories featuring the entrepreneurs who participated in Unreasonable East Africa’s 2015 program. 

“What is poverty?” a Ugandan financial workshop leader asked Molly Burke and other attendants. Another Ugandan woman replied, “Poverty is not having transportation to leave my community. It’s seeing other people leave and access greater opportunity—getting to bigger markets or even a health clinic—and it’s you who is stuck.”

Poverty is not having transportation to leave the community. It’s seeing other people leave and access greater opportunity. Tweet This Quote

Burke credits this moment as a huge motivation for ensuring distance isn’t a barrier to opportunity for people living in rural communities across Uganda. She is co-founder and executive director of Bicycles Against Poverty (BAP), an organization based in Gulu that uses a microfinance model to distribute bikes, turning what would normally take hours walking in the sun into a quick jaunt to access critical services.

“Bicycles are a true treasure in Uganda,” says Burke, who sees bikes as a key driving force for economic development. “They aren’t readily available. Over two-thirds of the population travels by walking, and they live in the rural areas. That translates into hours just to get to clean water, markets and health centers.”

Co-founder Muyambi Muyambi grew up in southern Uganda, but ended up traveling to Northern Uganda, a war-affected region, to learn more about his country. The region achieved peace after rebel groups disbanded in 2005, but the 20-year-long civil war disrupted life in cataclysmic ways. He decided it was here that needed the most development, and he was determined to figure out how.

Distance shouldn’t be a barrier to opportunity for people living in rural communities. Tweet This Quote

On a scholarship at Bucknell University, Muyambi met Burke. “He told me that bikes are everything in Uganda,” Burke reflects. “It made sense, but I didn’t understand until I traveled there. The impact doesn’t just fall into one specific area.”

Muyambi and Burke partnered in 2008, and the nonprofit Bicycles Against Poverty was born. Their approach is to eradicate poverty at its source by creating access to markets and critical services for millions of Ugandans, especially farmers.

For example, with the ability to travel to a distant market, a farmer can access better prices and return with more goods to increase their profit margin. This spurs a cycle of reinvestment to grow a small business. In a lease to own model, BAP provides the bikes to a local farmer for a 15 USD deposit, followed by 7 USD per month for a year, totaling approximately 100 USD.

Bikes are a key driving force for economic development. Tweet This Quote

But sometimes lack of transportation isn’t a missed day at the market, but a matter of life or death. For parents living in remote areas, getting to a health center in a timely manner is crucial because of epidemic sicknesses like dysentery.

“Previously, we had a mother who had to pay a month’s worth of wages to afford to hire a motorcycle to get to the clinic, but then she couldn’t afford the medicine,” says Burke. Faced with this conundrum, the mother had to choose whether to walk and risk taking the extra time, but save the money for the medicine. “People are constantly trying to weigh the costs, and it’s a lose-lose.”

Dissatisfied, the duo is working to change that cost-benefit analysis across the country. In the last five years, they’ve distributed over 1,600 bikes. Farmers who participate in BAP earn on average 390 USD annually. A study in Uganda showed that bikes increase income by 35% per year, so that’s an additional 136.50 USD per farmer per year. To date, BAP has increased profits for farmers by 218,400 USD per year.

With the ability to travel to a distant market, an entrepreneur can access better prices and return with more goods to increase their profit margin. Tweet This Quote

To reach even more participants, Burke partnered with key groups already networked across the region, including Save the Children, CARE International, and VSO International.

The partners make introductions into new communities, helping BAP build trust quickly. The pre-existing infrastructures developed by the partners make marketing, credit verification and thus rapid scaling much easier. Through this new partnership model, BAP sold the same amount of bikes in only one year as they have in the last five.

“There’s more accountability for our loan structure this way,” says Burke. “Loan officers are appointed in the community and are always available to other members. The relationships are key.”

The bicycle is a means to achieve upward mobility. Tweet This Quote

By 2017, Bicycles Against Poverty wants to distribute 15,000 bicycles across the entire country. They are recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative University Outstanding Commitment Award, and the founders were named Travelers of the Year by National Geographic in 2013.

“We are committed to ensuring that people can afford the transportation themselves,” says Burke. “The bicycle is a means to achieve upward mobility.”

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Cayte Bosler

Author Cayte Bosler

Cayte is an Unreasonable correspondent. She collects stories and lessons from and for entrepreneurs dedicated to solving the world's most pressing problems. She writes on a variety of subjects including science, technology, international development, the environment and travel.

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