Founded in 1984, Bikes Not Bombs, aka BNB, is a Boston-based organisation that aims to use the bicycle as a vehicle for social change. It does so in a variety of ways, both at home and abroad, through youth programs, international programs and a bike shop.
Primarily, BNB recycles some six thousands donated bikes a year, sending them off to parts of the world where they’re still valued. To date, around 46,000 bikes have made their way in container ships to destinations around Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
There, they provide a crucial means to access resources such as education, healthcare, markets and jobs – by providing a form of transport that’s both affordable and sustainable. In doing so, the organisation sees bicycles as “comprehensive development tools that further the self-determined development of people, by providing access to the goods and services needed to pursue their own development and the development of their families and communities. Bicycles are thus tools that both liberate and empower – providing the vehicle for social change.”
As such, Bikes Not Bombs partners with a whole host of specialist organisations across the globe, helping to ensure its resources and knowhow are put to good use. In Ghana, for instance, it advises and supports the Ability Bikes Cooperative, who import, refurbish and sell these bicycles at an affordable price, to those who most need them. The co-op is run by a group of physically-challenged individuals – suffering from polio for the most part. In fixing and selling bikes, their work not only creates mobility amongst able-bodied people, but also helps change social perceptions of their role in society.
Other grassroots organisations actively supported include the Ghana and Sierra Leone-based Village Bicycle Project. Again, bikes are sold at subsidised costs and training is provided on how to maintain them – from oiling a chain to fixing a flat to using gears. One of the primary focuses is women and girls, whose schooling and work opportunities are often sacrificed through lack of access to transportation. Mobility helps open up these opportunities, which in turn helps develop a stronger sense of social equality. Similarly, tools are sold to local mechanics at affordable prices, helping to build a repair infrastructure in rural areas, keeping these bikes on the road for years to come.
Over in northern Uganda, devastated after 20 years of civil war, Bikes Not Bombs has partnered with the Amuru Sub-county Village Health Team, to provide 400 volunteer health workers with bicycles and the training to maintain them. There, 95 per cent of the population were displaced for over a decade, unable to return to their villages until five years ago. Infrastructure is still extremely poor, with a doctor to patient ratio a startling 50,000 to 1, making the role of these volunteers all the more crucial in trying to meet this shortfall. Four times more efficient than walking, bikes play an important role in the rural transport network, helping workers reach patients in remote village more regularly, as well as increasing the speed and response time in emergencies.
Elsewhere, on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Bikes Not Bombs sends donated bicycles to Nevis Earn-A-Bike, a grassroots youth bicycle program that not only provides bicycles to the island’s younger population, but also offers maintenance training and leadership skills. Heavily reliant on tourism, the island offers little opportunities, resulting in significant social conflict. Bikes are put back together and used for group rides, helping to develop a sense of community.
Those bicycles that don’t make it to distant locales are put to good use locally, through a whole host of Boston-based youth initiatives. A key to these projects is that they’re hands on and peer-led, the theory being that “the best youth programs are ones that involve young people, not only as participants but also as consultants, and ones that give young people the opportunity to self-manage and become leaders.”
Initiatives include Earn-A-Bike, upon which its Nevis namesake is based. Geared for 12-18 year olds, Earn-A-Bike provides the chance to learn the intricacies of rebuilding and repairing a bike, accruing credits and thus earning it in the process. As such, all the necessary skills are covered, from repacking a hub to adjusting derailleurs to fixing a flat. Environmentalism is also taught and encouraged, highlighting the non-polluting benefits of using a bicycle for transportation. Bike safety is a requisite of the courses, with a set of skills that need to be mastered before a bicycle can be earned.
Finally, to round all these diverse projects off, Bikes Not Bombs operates a bike shop in Boston that both sells reconditioned bicycles and offers full service repairs. Again, the organisation’s mission statement – using the bicycle as a vehicle for social change – is kept firmly in mind, with both classes in basic maintenance and vocational educational courses for jobs in bike shops. The profits generated are then churned back into its Youth and International projects, to keep the organisation sustainable.