World Bicycle Relief Co-Founder F.K. Day speaks at TedXMidAtlantic

TEDxMidAtlantic 2017: Superpowers, held Oct. 27-28, featured “stories of individual triumph and global interconnectedness.” And WBR co-founder F.K. Day was among the speakers invited to share their stories.

F.K. was thrilled to have the opportunity to share the story of World Bicycle Relief and how a bicycle can create so much change for people around the world.

See the full video of F.K.’s talk below, as well as the full transcript.


Do we have any cyclists out there in the audience? Raise your hand. Oh, that is excellent. Well, I hope after I tell you this story, you’ll never look at bicycles the same again.

My brother and I and some friends started a company 30 years ago to design and manufacture high-performance bicycles. Most of our products were for racers and for fitness and sport, and at that time I thought I knew a lot about bicycles and the power of bicycles and all that they could deliver. It turns out, I missed a very important part. I missed the basic concept of transportation.

Here’s what I mean.

If I went around the room and asked you ‘what was your transportation story last week’ this is probably what I’d hear:

I walked to work. I rode my bike. I drove my car. I took a bus, a train, a tram. My flight was delayed. I got harassed at TSA. That would be your transportation story.

If I was to ask the same question in rural Africa, the story would be about walking. It would be about racing the sun, from sunup ’til sundown, trying to get what you needed to do in that day complete — every step a race to overcome the barrier of distance before the darkness of night.

We really learned about this about 13 years ago, immediately following the Indian Ocean tsunami. Like you, many of us were watching this disaster unfold on television. And it was horrible. We thought to ourselves, oh my gosh, how will we respond?

As a family we thought, well, maybe we could raise funds and send it to the Red Cross. But then as a company and a family, we said, “You know what, maybe what we could do is leverage our experience in the bicycle industry and deliver a large-scale bicycle program to help people basically get moving again, back into transportation.”

So we took that idea, and we called all of the relief organizations in the U.S., and we said, “Hey, what do you think about a large-scale bicycle program to mobilize all these people who had lost so much?” And all of them said, “No, no, no, just send us your money.”

Well, that didn’t make sense to me. So, my wife Leah Missbach Day, a photographer, we flew to Indonesia and Sri Lanka and began interviewing communities and relief organizations on the ground. We asked them the same question, “What do you think about a large-scale bicycle program?” And the response was the complete opposite.

They said, “You can do a large-scale program with bicycles? That would be fantastic.” So along with Leah and our company, and with the support of the bicycle industry, we worked with local NGOs and communities, and we delivered 24,000 locally-sourced bicycles to those people. Thank you. To those people who had lost so much.

The impact was deep and immediate.

I remember being with Leah in Sri Lanka, and she was gathering photography and stories from one of the relocation camps. It was many miles away from where people used to live. A man was riding out of that camp with his daughter and they were going to the clinic because his daughter was sick. Then they were going to go to the marketplace. The distance would have been about 10 miles and would have taken them about four hours and would have exhausted the child if they were walking along the way. When they received the bicycle, they were able to complete that trip in one hour. The man was able to carry the daughter all the way. The beauty of that is, that wherever a bicycle was delivered, the exact same transformation occurred.

This boost in productivity and efficiency, this ability to use your transportation to regain your livelihood and your jobs and your clinics. So, we hired an outside organization to measure the impact, you know, what has this done? What is the return on investment? And the results were deep and immediate impact in the areas of healthcare, education, and economic development. We published the report, our job was done, and we were going to go back and keep designing for the top end of the market, for racers and enthusiasts around the world.

As we were wrapping up, an individual from one of the relief organizations came to us and said, “You know, the work you’ve done here is truly impactful. But do you realize the same number of people that died in the tsunami,” which is about 230,000, “die every two weeks in Africa from hunger and preventable disease? You have to scale this bicycle program up in Africa.”

Well, that hadn’t been our plan. But you actually can’t turn your back on a comment like that, particularly with the results that we saw.

So we challenged ourselves and said, “Okay, let’s scale up in Africa, and we’ll kind of do it like a business. We’ll focus in on the three key areas of impact, healthcare, education, and economic development. We’ll isolate those, we’ll measure them carefully, and publish the results.”

So, we researched a bunch in Africa, and we chose a large-scale healthcare initiative that was going on in Zambia. It was a consortium of well-known relief organizations addressing the devastation caused by HIV and AIDS. What they were going to try to do is train the villages how to take better care of themselves, so they would train village healthcare workers to go back into their villages and teach about prevention and testing, and then how to care for the sick and the dying. They trained 23,000 workers and sent them out into Zambia walking.

For those of you familiar with Zambia, Zambia’s about the size of Texas with half the population. There’s a whole lot of distance between everything, homes, villages, towns. What they found, is that the trained healthcare workers wasted so much time walking that the program began to suffer. There were huge inconsistencies in the care, the caseloads weren’t being taken care of, but even worse, the volunteers were beginning to drop out of the program. They were poor as well, and they had to take care of their families. And if they had to walk for hours and hours, they couldn’t take care of their families. It was terrible.

So, we came alongside of them. We said, “Okay, we’ll deliver 23,000 bikes, and we will mobilize your demoralized army. And we will get them back on the roads. So, that shouldn’t have been a problem. So, we said, “Okay, we’ll replicate exactly what we did in Sri Lanka,” which is, we identified all the local sources of bikes, we strengthened them, and then we delivered them into the field. So, we looked into Zambia at all the sources of bicycles, and we took them and we tested them out in the communities.

And what we found is that all of them began to fail immediately. Pedals broke off, crank arms bent, wheels collapsed. They couldn’t be used for this program, it was a disaster. We had been way overconfident. We affectionately called those bikes BSOs, for “Bicycle-Shaped Objects.”

We had to go back to our NGO partners, the ones that were dependent on us to deliver transportation to kind of salvage their program. And we had to go back to them and say, “If we followed through with this bike program, it would fail. We need time to fix the supply chain.”

Well, we went to all of the suppliers and, of course, none of them thought that their bikes were breaking, which is another classic example of how the poor have no voice, and they get dumped on all the time. But there was one of them that said, “Oh, we had no idea our bikes were breaking. Can you help us fix them?”

Well, that we can do, that we know something about. So, we worked very closely with them to improve their bikes and their supply chain, and then we began delivering bikes into the healthcare initiative.

Royce is one of the healthcare workers. And she also was suffering from long distance to walk, but when she received the bike it was like turbo-charging an angel.

She was able to visit more patients more frequently and spend more time. She was able to leverage the teaching and the training that the NGOs had given her, and helped spread it out throughout her communities. And when she wasn’t working on healthcare for the communities, she was able to use the bike to assist her family. We found that our research said, that she was able to go four times further, which means visiting more distant patients, and also visiting twice as many patients.

That program went from suffering, to conceivably failing, to becoming one of the leading programs in service of HIV and AIDS. So we thought, okay, we ended up delivering about a 160,000 bikes into healthcare initiatives in about 18 countries, and we saw very similar results — and we’re not done yet.

But with the healthcare initiative going, we turned our attention to education. Remember, we’re working on the three key findings that we found in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, we found that when the students that had been displaced into distant camps received a bicycle, they began to return to school immediately. Our research in Zambia said that distance was a huge barrier to keeping kids in school, and that if we applied the same concept, we would see the same results.

And in Zambia and many parts of Africa, the tradition is for the girl students to do all the chores at home. That includes cleaning, cooking, fetching water, caring for younger siblings. So, the dropout rate for girls was much higher. So, we worked very closely with the Zambian Ministry of Education and the communities, and we designed a program that would provide bikes to students on a study-to-own program. If they stayed in school, they would earn the bike after two years. And that began to regenerate this incredible transportation that was missing in connecting students to schools.

Ethel is a student, she’s a high school student, a teenager, a high school teenager who lives about four hours round trip to school. She has dreams of becoming a nurse. She’s good in science, she’s good in math. But the distance to her school is likely going to crush those dreams. When she received a bike, she immediately was able to get to school on time, use the bike to help her family, and ensure that she had a chance to get to those dreams that she cared so deeply about.

Today, we’ve delivered over 150,000 bikes into education initiatives like the one that Ethel was part of. We’ve seen over a 25% increase in attendance, and over a 55% increase in performance. Who wouldn’t want to try that with their teenager at home? The consistency in the impact is so great that we’d begun to funnel or focus all of our philanthropic work into the area of education. And the results again are off the charts, and it’s very easy to scale.

But there’s a really interesting thing. One thing I’ve noticed is that philanthropy will help people stuck in poverty, but it won’t get them out. Economics will.

What we found is that whenever we delivered a philanthropic program, people in the communities would come to us and want to buy the bicycles. These would be entrepreneurs, farmers, people who simply had long, long distances to travel. And they needed basic transportation, and they had no choice other than walking.

So, we founded a for-profit … so the not-for-profit founded the for-profit to serve those underserved people. And it’s a wholly-owned for-profit. So now the not-for-profit has this great revenue stream. And the beauty is, is that it’s beginning to deliver bikes much further in the field than we could ever do philanthropically. So, the way I look at it, the philanthropic programs are pioneering programs of excellence in giving examples to other people in other corporations, where great impact can be had with basic transportation.

I believe that if we look at sub-Sahara Africa, and there are about a billion people, depending on who you ask, living in sub-Sahara Africa. Over 600 million of them are living in the rural context, where walking is their primary mode of transportation.

Imagine the possibility of mobilizing those individuals. Imagine the possibility of them caring for their villages, them caring for their education, them caring for their commerce, release them from that bondage of distance that they face every day, that consumes so many of their daylight hours. Release them through the power of bikes.

We’re beginning to do that and generating the data to back it up. And my hope is that at some point, we’ll be able to get enough people to copy us that transportation will never be a barrier to those people in rural Africa again.

I look at the possibility of transportation, I think to myself that we have so many options that we’ve forgotten about its importance. Today, you’ll leave here and choose many modes of transportation to get home. But the people in rural Africa don’t have those transportation choices. I look at my life, and I go, we all have a transportation story. Mine, I’m thankful that I can live a life of impact to the service of others, bringing voice to the poorest people that have the biggest problem with transportation, and bringing the bike industry to bear into that.

I’ve spent most of my life designing and manufacturing high-performance bicycle components, but I think the most powerful bicycle I’ve ever seen is one of the hands of a woman building her business and fighting to gain new markets, or one in the hands of the schoolgirl fighting for her education. Thank you.

Feeling inspired to put a bicycle into the hands of someone in need?