Bikes to Rwanda: Building Communities and a Better Cup of Coffee

Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka and the one of the seminal thinkers behind the modern social enterprise movement, describes in a recent interview that moment of inspiration when a social entrepreneur sees the solution to a problem that has eluded all others. “The most powerful force in the world is a big pattern change idea, but only if it’s in the hands of a very good entrepreneur,” Drayton comments during the interview.
manbike_crpd1.jpgOne such entrepreneur is Duane Sorenson, the owner of Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, OR. He experienced this moment of inspiration on a trip to Rwanda in 2006 where he was visiting the coffee cooperative Koakaka Koperative Ya Kawa Ya Karaba, or Karaba for short. More than a mile above sea level, Karaba grows bourbon-varietal coffee, a superior varietal, but a more delicate and difficult one to grow and process. Mr. Sorenson asked one of the farmers at Karaba what could Stumptown do to help him improve his coffees. “He said a bike would help him with transportation of ripe cherry to the mills, which would improve the coffee’s quality, since coffee needs to be milled within hours of picking.” Once a coffee cherry is harvested, the bean inside the cherry swiftly begins to degrade. Coffee cherries, especially delicate ones like the bourbon varietal, that sit in the sun can ferment and taint a batch of beans.
The trip provided Mr Sorenson and his colleagues at Stumptown the germ of an idea. After returning from Rwanda, they started a nonprofit group called Bikes to Rwanda (BTR). About their moment of inspiration, Clara Seasholtz, executive director of Bikes to Rwanda adds, “I have to say that it isn’t often that aid projects begin by asking the benefactors what they need, rather than a bunch of Westerners sitting around deciding what developing countries need, why not ask them?”

Their mission is to provide cargo bicycles to co-operative coffee farmers in Rwanda with the goal to improve quality of life in these communities, provide transportation resources for basic needs, and enhance production of quality coffee. The organization also establishes bike shops and training programs for maintenance and repair. According to recent estimates, there are 500,000 coffee farmers in Rwanda (in a country of about 9 million) and 40 to 50 percent of Rwanda’s population relies on coffee-related income. So providing reliable transportation can have a profound impact on the Rwandan economy, which is still trying to revive after years of ethnic strife.
coffee.jpgBTR first obtained a prototype of a heavy-duty cruiser with front and rear baskets. The bike had to be strong enough to carry 350-pound bags of coffee, but also maneuverable enough for Rwanda’s rough and unpaved roads. Consistent with the best practices of developing appropriate solutions, BTR took the prototype to Rwanda to get feedback directly from the farmers. “Although we knew the (prototype) bike would need some modifications, it was important to take it to the famers for their input,” says Seasholtz. “The terrain in Rwanda and the feedback from the farmers who will be using the bikes were the two major factors in our decision to seek other bike options after this trial.”
Bikes to Rwanda ultimately decided to purchase 400 bikes developed by Project Rwanda with renowned mountain bike builder Tom Ritchey. The bikes use 26-inch wheels and 18 speeds. The rear end of the frame is extended more than two feet to create a larger flat rack behind the rider. By changing the center of gravity, the load capacity is increased to nearly 350 pounds.
Good Magazine has posted this excellent video on YouTube where you can see the bikes in action.

Ongoing fund raising efforts go toward the purchase of these custom cargo bikes, which BTR then offers to co-op farmers for around $120 a bike in a micro credit approach. “The goal is not to make money off the farmers, but instead to create a sense of ownership that only comes when people feel that they have invested something in the effort too,” says Ms. Seasholtz.
Thanks to their cargo bikes, farmers are getting their coffee to processing more quickly, resulting in higher quality, more income, and a quicker payoff of their bikes. As an added benefit, on the days that they are not carrying coffee, they use their bikes to haul other items or as basic transportation for their families, greatly improving their living conditions.
The inspiration of BTR once again demonstrates that simple solutions – well designed and well applied — can have a powerful impact on the world’s poor. All over the developing world, groups like BTR are addressing the need for basic transportation. Two others that deserve mention are Worldbike and Acirfa. Like BTR, these groups have done a good job of developing appropriate solutions that take into consideration the cultural, social, environmental and economic needs of the communities they are serving.
Photos courtesy of Stumptown Coffee Roasters.

Jim Witkin is a writer based in Silicon Valley and London focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. Contact him at