Riding towards one million: How World Bicycle Relief's work is changing lives

Dave Neiswander has spent the last 17 years with World Bicycle Relief, from being on the ground in Zambia, Africa, to being the CEO. He tells Rouleur more about the approaching one-million milestone and the real power a bicycle can have

In 2009, in the sprawling landscapes of Zambia, where the golden sun illuminates the vibrant hues of the African plains, a revolution was unfolding. It’s a tale of empowerment, freedom, and joy, and one that World Bicycle Relief was spearheading with the humble bicycle. 

Dave Neiswander, now the charity’s CEO, was the first on the ground in Zambia, setting up operations two years earlier in 2007. “We were starting up our operations in partnership with the healthcare programme,” he told Rouleur, noting the country's HIV/AIDS endemic at the time. “I was just told the bikes are coming and to figure it out. I didn’t know what that meant and it was sort of a baptism by fire. I didn’t have a background in development per se, or bicycles or Africa, but we just figured it out as we went along.” 

And figure it out he did. Today, World Bicycle Relief has provided Zambia with over 268,000 of the charity’s Buffalo Bicycles and 750,000 worldwide in developing countries such as Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. Neiswander commented on this growth: “I distinctly remember being with the co-founders F.K. Day and Leah Missbach Day, and we were driving down a dirt road in Zambia and Leah and I were in the bed of a pick-up truck, and she said, “Imagine one day there being Buffalo Bicycles up and down this road”. Now, when you go to Zambia, where we’ve been operating the longest, there are so many bikes up and down that same road. There’s also bike shops, and you can see the impact these bikes have had on individual lives and how it has improved for them and their communities.” 

World Bicycle Relief’s Buffalo Bicycle has been developed and designed specifically for the needs and demands of cycling in a country with rugged terrain, limited infrastructure and the need to travel long distances with heavy cargo. Unlike the high-performing lightweight bikes we see on the market today, the Buffalo Bicycle is made from heavy-gauge steel, has puncture-resistant tyres, all-weather coaster brakes, and can carry up to 100kg of cargo. But World Bicycle Relief does not just provide the bicycles, it is building sustainable bicycle infrastructure in the regions it works, employing local assemblers to build and deliver its Buffalo Bicycles and also train field mechanics to ensure people have access to quality maintenance and affordable spare parts. In 2023 alone, World Bicycle Relief helped open 18 shops in the countries where it works and trained 382 mechanics – changing 368,490 lives with Buffalo Bicycles and employment, according to the charity’s 2023 Impact Report. 

World Bicycle Relief CEO, Dave Neiswander

It was also revealed in the same report just how much of an impact these bikes have had over the 18 years World Bicycle Relief has been operating. In the report, it was highlighted that as part of the charity’s mobilising communities programme participants a year after receiving their bikes had missed fewer days of school, declining by 90% in Zambia; the time spent travelling to school was reduced by 44%; more than 90% of health workers in Kenya and Zambia are still providing services to their communities one to two years after receiving their bikes; and 85% reported to have increasing the number of clients they see. 

But these statistics do not surprise Neiswander, who has seen the lives of those in these countries first-hand. “The distances are real,” he said. “Especially we think about girls or students who have to walk five to 10 kilometres to get to school, and that is after they’ve done their early morning chores of fetching water, making the fire, cooking, clearing up the house, taking care of young siblings. They then walk that distance in places that are often not that safe, so there are plenty of reasons why they don’t go to school. 

“The bicycle then becomes tied to that girl's education, empowering her, making her feel valued and that somebody cares for her and her education. These bikes are elevating these girl’s education and this is key to unlocking and breaking the cycle of poverty and disease in these developing regions. Statistics and studies show that if you educate girls, magical things happen and bicycles are a very good way to do that.” 

Providing women and girls with bikes is a focus for World Bicycle Relief, and so far, 70% of Buffalo Bicycles have been provided to this demographic. This is because many women and girls face obstacles that limit their access to quality education, well-paid employment, reproductive healthcare and property rights, but by giving them bicycles, they are able to confront these obstacles and take control of their futures, starting with their education, where World Bicycle Relief found that 30 million girls did not attend secondary school and one in five married in childhood. 

However, the success of these efforts depends on understanding the unique cultural norms and challenges in each region. World Bicycle Relief conducts mobility assessments in the communities it engages with, recognising that cultural norms may vary, impacting women and girl's ability to cycle. To ensure sustainability, the organisation empowers communities to manage and own the programs, working in collaboration with governments and local ambassadors to emphasise the importance of girl's education and the transformative power of bicycles. 

“We have an amazing East Africa director, Maureen Kolenyo, who goes and does very inspirational speeches about the importance of girls and education, and why it is important to educate them and allow them access to education with reliable transportation,” Neiswander said about the importance of having those trailblazers within each country to help spread the message about the impact bicycles can have and help the estimated one billion people in poverty. 

The first big goal for Neiswander and World Bicycle Relief is to provide one million bikes to those in need, which he hopes they’ll hit in the next 12 to 18 months. But this is “just a drop in the bucket when you think about what the need is,” he stated. “We will hit this really significant milestone, but at the end of the day, it is just a number, and it is more about the people that are impacted and the fact there’s one billion people that need access to reliable transportation.”

However, being able to provide these life-changing bikes is only able to happen through fundraising. World Bicycle Relief works with many brands and ambassadors to raise awareness about the power the bicycle can have, both in these rural communities and for everyone. Neiswander understands this power and regularly explores the trails behind his home in Washington DC, and feels “all the good things that bicycling gives us”, such as fitness, mental health and a means of transport. 

To help others enjoy these benefits and help raise much-needed funds for more bikes, World Bicycle Relief has partnered with Rouleur Travel to run a trip from Geneva, Switzerland, to Paris, France, for the 2024 Olympics with tickets to the athletics and men’s road race happening in early August. “I think the trip itself sounds amazing,” he said about the six-day ride. “And the fact that it can help raise awareness of the work that World Bicycle Relief does and how people can get involved, I think is even better.” 

Shop now