3 June 2022

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, a new technological innovation swept across much of Europe and the United States, one that eventually transformed cultural expectations for women’s fashion, behaviour and rights.

That innovation was the first “safety bicycle”, the basic design of which resembles that of modern-day bikes. This new type of bicycle eventually helped emancipate women from their Victorian corsets and bustles, which were not conducive to riding; increased their visibility in public (quite literally); and enabled them to travel independently.

A 1896 New York Times article on the new bicycle craze recognized the transformative power of this simple device: “…the bicycle promises a splendid extension of personal power and freedom, scarcely inferior to what wings would give.” Indeed, women did take flight, among them, American feminist and mother of three young children, Annie Londonderry, who became the first woman to bike around the world.

But the expansion of the transformative power of bicycles was not global, particularly not in sub-Saharan Africa, where traditionally, the few bikes on the road are still typically second-hand and not designed for local conditions or to meet user needs.

Today, a number of convergent trends have brought renewed interest in the potential of the bicycle to empower women and girls, reduce poverty and improve health in sub-Saharan Africa.

First, there is growing recognition of the challenge of rural exclusion.

Over the last 25 years, the world has witnessed the largest reduction of poverty in human history, with more than 1 billion people around the world escaping extreme poverty. But this remarkable progress has been uneven. Nearly 1 billion rural people around the world and 70 per cent of rural Africans risk being left behind because they live in communities far from an accessible all-weather road, putting education, healthcare, agricultural inputs, markets and other critical services needed to end the poverty cycle out of reach.

Researchers have estimated that 75 per cent of deaths across rural sub-Saharan Africa are related to distance—patients simply can’t reach health facilities or can’t reach them in time.

Community Health Workers with bicycles in Hwange, Zimbabwe decrease their travel times and increase patient visits. Mana Meadows/World Bicycle Relief

Across Africa, an estimated 33 million primary school-age children are currently not enrolled in school. According to the World Bank, “The single most important determinant of primary school enrollment is the proximity of a school to primary school-age children.”

This deeply unequal landscape recently prompted United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to state that “Income disparities and a lack of opportunities are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration and discontent across generations.”

Today these pockets of rural exclusion and discontent are recognized by bilateral and multilateral organizations, governments and non-governmental organizations as an urgent call for action.

Second, we know that rural mobility cuts across most of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Achieving the SDGs requires not just building schools and health clinics but also considering how rural people will access them. We know that these investments in schools and health facilities will change nothing if people can’t reach them.

Third, there is a growing understanding that rural access is, in particular, a gender issue. Social and cultural barriers compound the distance between rural women and girls and the services and opportunities they need to thrive.

For example, the long daily walk to bring home water—made even longer by climate change—is not simply an inconvenience for girls, who traditionally are tasked with fetching water in rural communities; it can also jeopardize girls’ ability to make another long walk to school because they simply run out of daylight. The long walk to school also leaves girls vulnerable to harassment and assault, and can deepen their family’s poverty as it may prevent the girls from helping in the home, on the family farm or helping make ends meet before or after school. Sadly, a long walk to the nearest health clinic forces a majority of African women to give birth without a skilled birth attendant by her side.

Girls in Zambia with Buffalo Bicycles were 19 per cent less likely to drop out of school, and absenteeism decreased by 28 per cent. World Bicycle Relief

Finally, there is increasing recognition, based on research conducted in India and Zambia, of the potential role the bicycle as an effective conditional, non-cash transfer that helps girls get to school and keep them in school.

These concurrent trends are supporting a number of promising efforts to expand access to affordable transportation via bicycle that can empower women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa.

For the last 10 years the Ministry of Education in Zambia has partnered with World Bicycle Relief to help 36,977 rural girls get to school quickly and safely with specially designed bicycles. A rigorous, randomized control trial and other evaluations of the programme have found that girls provided with a bicycle:

  • Were 19 per cent less likely to drop out
  • Reduced their absenteeism by 28 per cent
  • Cut their commute time by 33 per cent, saving more than one hour a day
  • Scored higher on mathematics assessment
  • Reported feeling more in control of the decisions affecting their lives
  • Experienced 22 per cent less sexual harassment and/or teasing on their way to school.

World Bicycle Relief has already connected more than 200,000 women and girls in Africa with bicycles that are specially designed to withstand the most punishing terrain day after day. These workhorses are made of steel, puncture-resistant tires and a heavy-duty carrier built to lug 200 kilograms of cargo. In October 2021, the United States Agency for International Development, recognizing the potential for bicycles to support inclusive economic growth and women’s empowerment, announced two grants to improve sustainable access to affordable bicycles in sub-Saharan Africa.

While bicycles may no longer serve as an emblem of women’s empowerment and self-determination in North America and Europe, they may well regain that status in the coming years by helping a generation of rural African women and girls access education, health care and livelihood opportunities, and allowing them to fulfil their dreams.