Frederick K.W. (F.K.) Day probably wasn’t at his best when I interviewed him at his office in Chicago a few months ago. He and his wife Leah had recently returned from Zambia and Leah worried that “he may not be up to his highly-quotable par. He’s been under the weather, taking a regime of malaria and typhus treatments.”
But challenges like malaria and typhus slow Day down roughly the same way cancer slowed cycling great Lance Armstrong: only temporarily, and making his flame burn hotter.
Day and Leah run World Bicycle Relief and he is on fire to deliver lifesaving machinery to impoverished nations. The machines are simple heavy-duty bicycles and Day is on target to deliver more than 70,000 of them to Zambia’s rural communities.
It started with the tsunami
Day and his older brother Stan have been in the bicycle trade for twenty years. Born to a family-business tradition, they fantasized as youngsters about building some kind of company. In 1987 they founded SRAM, a manufacturer of high-end bike components, and rode the wave of cycling enthusiasm to the top of their industry. SRAM pioneered grip-shift technology for the racing market, then expanded through acquisitions and two high-profile battles with the Shimano corporation into a company that employs more than 2500 people in thirteen locations worldwide, generating more than $400 million in annual sales.
In 2005, watching the devastation caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean basin, Day and Leah realized they had in their control tools that could help people recover. Partnering with World Vision International, a global Christian service organization, and focusing on Sri Lanka, the Days delivered thousands of bikes inside of a few months. “With the collapse of so much infrastructure, we thought children might benefit a lot if we could get bikes to them,” Day said. “We learned that bikes are not only important for the young, but can provide great service for whole families.”
A new world vision
Day returned to Chicago with a growing desire to use bikes to save lives. “Sounds fine,” said his brother Stan, “if you can still do your day job.”
Day continued to head up SRAM but began to allocate more of his energy to what has grown into World Bicycle Relief. “SRAM brings so much talent to these projects,” Day said. “There’s a social entrepreneur angle that fits right in with what SRAM was already about.”
Still partnering with World Vision, Day and Leah began looking at possibilities in Africa. “We needed a good partner on the ground, with lean methods, that gave us a chance to apply our expertise,” Day said. “We contacted a small factory in Zambia that had once made some okay bikes, but the owner wasn’t interested. Then we met another group that made junk bikes–but they were eager, willing to learn. So we chose them.”
To date, WBR has raised more than $2 million for its Zambia healthcare project, enough to cover the cost of more than 20,000 bikes at $134 apiece. The workhorse is the 60-pound “Buffalo.” Built on a wide-tube black steel frame, the heavy, adult-size bike (standard for Zambia) would spook the parents of an American suburban kid. But Zambian 10-year-olds make do, standing astride the horizontal top-tube to pedal dirt roads.
The Buffalo comes standard with a frame-mounted pump and bilateral kickstand that can stabilize even a full load when parked. The unshakable rear-rack can support one hundred kilograms. Simple coaster brakes are built to last for generations; no potentially problematic cables on this thing. At a ratio of 44/18, the single-speed gearing is smooth but a challenge on hills–riders occasionally dismount and handle the bike like a cart, to get goods to and from local markets.
“A family in Zambia might spend hours each day walking to market, to school, to a job, or an HIV clinic,” said Day. “We started by imagining the effect one solid bicycle could have on their lives. But, you know, there are a lot of industries that can apply themselves this way. It just takes cultural awareness. Medical industries, communications industries, and others have so much innate talent and expertise, which could be tapped to create sustainable and scalable programs in regions that really need them.
“By ‘scalable’ I mean programs that can grow, that can be replicated,” he added. “It’s not just about sending bikes. We want to build an industry that can stand on its own. In Zambia, there are seven ways our bikes can fail: in design, manufacturing, shipping, assembly, transport to the field, usage, and maintenance. The goal isn’t just to send bikes, but to educate and train people in those communities to overcome failures at all those levels–so that ultimately they won’t need us.”
A little larger than Texas, Zambia has a population of about 11 million, one-tenth of whom are living with HIV/AIDS. Half the population is under 16. and life expectancy is less than 40 years. WBR provides bicycles not only to families in need, but to disease prevention educators and home-based care volunteers, who can quadruple their range with a Buffalo.
WBR has trained and equipped more than 400 bicycle mechanics in the field. After a 5-day training session, each can earn several dollars a day, a respectable wage in Zambia. Upon completion of the program, they are given a diploma, uniform, tools, repair manual, bicycle, and a customer list.
“We have a triple focus,” Day said. “First health care, then economic development, then education. Remote villages isolate patients from the growing availability of health care, and separate people from markets, and separate villagers from educators. A bicycle can bridge the gaps.”
In February, WBR contracted with Zambia’s Ministry of Education to deliver 50,000 bicycles to children and teachers in the country’s neediest districts. Delivery to 500 target schools will begin in June. Now, pause briefly to picture a Zambian grade-schooler, the son or daughter of an HIV-positive mother or father, for whom one of those bicycles may place within reach the parent’s medical care and the child’s opportunity to learn how to read. I’m a sentimental parent: when I imagine patting that Buffalo, my throat tightens.
An evening with Obama
Most of WBR’s programs are in the field in Zambia, but most of the funding comes from the United States so Day and Leah are always looking for ways to build awareness of WBR’s mission. In late 2007, Leah approached the campaign of then-Senator Barack Obama offering to host a fundraiser. The next June, on his first night back in Chicago after securing the Democratic nomination, he stopped by their house to meet and greet more than one hundred bike industry executives.
“I wanted to sculpt the theme of the evening,” Day said. “I asked if the senator would be willing to talk about such things as bicycling infrastructure, pedestrian issues, safe routes to schools. He had recently spoken at a huge outdoor event in Portland [Oregon]. Part of the story there was that thousands of people came on bikes. So it was on the campaign radar, and Obama had done his homework. He gave a great off-the-cuff talk, covering everything. When I looked back at his voting record, I saw he has been pro-bike all along.”
Although government support will never reach the levels of an auto industry bailout, Day thinks the new president understands the hope and positive change that bicycles can offer.
Bigger than a bike race
Two decades ago Day set out to build a business, never planning anything like WBR. After helping to build SRAM into the world’s second-largest bicycle parts company, he was never really driven to get to first place. His success with SRAM left him feeling a little empty.
“A titanium or carbon composite frame, and specialized gearshifts, at the top of the market, might make a difference of a few seconds in a race,” Day said. But it doesn’t compare to the immeasurable difference that a slow, heavy Buffalo can make in a villager’s life.
“F.K. used to lament a lot–even when SRAM was doing well, he would complain,” Leah said. “But since we started World Bicycle Relief, I don’t hear any of that anymore.”
You can learn more about World Bicycle Relief at www.worldbicyclerelief.org.