When Bob Uhlendorf finally decided to get rid of the bicycle that had been taking up space at the back of his garage for almost five years, little did he dream that his action would help fulfil the hopes of one of Guatemala's up-and-coming cyclists. One rainy Saturday in June 2006, Uhlendorf, from High Bridge, New Jersey, in the United States, took his bike — a standard, steel-framed, 10-speed Rampar racing model from the 1970s — to a collection for used bikes organised by Pedals for Progress (P4P) in a parking lot near his home. To his great surprise, a crowd of 35 people, including journalists and a senator from the New Jersey state legislature, were there to watch him hand over his old bicycle to David Schweidenback, president and founder of P4P. Uhlendorf was the unsuspecting donor of the 100,000th bicycle given to the organisation since it was set up in 1991. "He clearly wasn't expecting all this — he was just bringing us a bike which his grown-up children no longer had any use for," explains Schweidenback. "But for an organisation as small as ours, collecting our 100,000th bike was similar to the exhilaration one feels after a long, arduous climb when one finally makes it to the summit. It's a major milestone, which had to be duly celebrated."
Pedals for Progress, based in New Jersey, now redistributes used bicycles in 28 countries in Central and South America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa, to increase the mobility of disadvantaged people. The project earned Schweidenback a Rolex Award in 2000.
After being collected, P4P's 100,000th bicycle was sent without delay on the long journey that would bring it to its new home. First, a lorry carried it to the port of Newark, where Schweidenback and his team of volunteers loaded it into a shipping container, along with almost 500 other bicycles, all headed for Guatemala. After travelling for eight weeks over sea and land, the container arrived at San Andres de Iztapa, a farming town of 13,000 inhabitants in the hilly, central region of Chimaltenango. There P4P's local partner, the non-profit organisation FIDESMA (Integrated Foundation for Sustainable Development and the Environment), took delivery of the bicycles, undertaking to sell them at a low price and reinvest the profit in community projects, for example to provide free dental treatment or care for mentally handicapped children.
It was in the FIDESMA offices that the Rampar, just in from New Jersey, caught the eye of 31-year-old Mateo Patzan. At night Patzan works as a security guard, but in the day he is a celebrity: for seven consecutive years he has been the regional cycling champion and the pride of his whole village, situated a few kilometres from San Andres. All the villagers hope that one day Patzan will win first place in national races.
With no sponsor, the only support Patzan gets comes from FIDESMA, which provides him with spare parts and encouragement. As the Rampar, which is heavier than current models, is an ideal bike for training in the hills, Patzan decided to buy it and paid about US$10. "My dream is to become a professional cyclist," he confesses as he looks admiringly at the bicycle.
Cycling is a passion for this father of five, who supports his family with his night job, and grows vegetables on a small piece of land he owns. "My job as a security guard is my family's only source of income," Patzan explains. "To get support from a sponsor, I'd have to go away for weeks at a time to take part in competitions. And who'd feed my family then?" Villagers often see him working his patch of land almost immediately after taking part in an 80km bike race. He hopes the Rampar will help him improve his sporting performance significantly so he can win many more regional competitions. Prize money from individual races can be as much as US$500, a welcome supplement to Patzan's salary.
David Schweidenback is enthusiastic about the different uses people find for the bicycles exported by P4P: "The people who get the bicycles can find a job several kilometres from home, or even create one themselves. Mateo uses his to win cycling races, and others have set up bike-repair shops or small taxi-bike businesses, or they've made adjustments to their bike so they can transport and sell food or drink. In each case, we're allowing people to help themselves."
Asked why P4P asks for a small fee for the bicycles, rather than simply giving them away, Schweidenback says: "We are an organisation seeking economic growth. One cannot spur a capitalistic economy by giving things away. Giving things away actually damages an economy."
In his eagerness to provide opportunities for economic development, David Schweidenback also exports growing numbers of sewing-machines. "Bikes allow you to find a job, but sewing-machines are a job," he explains. This second P4P activity came about by accident in 1999: "At the time, my wife had got a new sewing-machine," he explains. "When we were wondering what to do with the old one, the answer suddenly seemed obvious: we should send it, and others, in the next container, squeezed in between the bikes. We immediately organised a collection, and a few weeks later we sent 17 machines to the Dominican Republic."
Since then, Schweidenback and his team have exported more than 700 sewing-machines, including old Singers with intricate gold-leaf designs – some of them still with their cabinet — and more recent models. Most of them are electric-powered, and have been sent mainly to Central America (Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) where the voltage is the same as in the United States, making them easier to use.
Staying in the Saddle
In the little town of Rivas in southern Nicaragua, for example, in 2003 the José Maria Moncada Secondary School bought two P4P sewing-machines on which students learn the rudiments of zigzag stitching and how to use the foot pedal. The school stays open in the evenings, when the machines can be used by adults who come in to alter their family's clothes or sew tablecloths which are then sold in the local markets. In Guatemala, at San Andres, Lourdes Santiso Salizar has developed a flourishing business making wedding dresses, thanks to the used machine she was able to buy cheaply in 1999 from a P4P partner organisation. In Opatoro, in western Honduras, a distribution of machines prompted 23 women to come together and set up a cooperative where they make school uniforms. Ever since, they have been making a steady income for their community of 30 families living in a remote part of the country. "This is the re-allocation of wealth from people who no longer need it to those who can make a living out of it," Schweidenback explains.
While proud of what his organisation has achieved thus far, this former Peace Corps volunteer, now aged 54, is constantly setting himself new challenges. "Our next step will be to send bikes to Jamaica and the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. We know it won't be easy, but we're pretty excited about it." The Rolex Award he won in 2000 enabled him to extend his activities to Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Moldavia, Pakistan and South Africa, but he is now looking for new partners to extend P4P further afield.
The organisation is also planning to buy a warehouse in New Jersey so that volunteers can organise the work throughout the full year. "At the moment, we can't store our bikes," Schweidenback says. "So we can only work from April to June and September to November — in other words, we're restricted to the months in which people clear out their houses, when what we collect will fill the containers in one go. If we could store the bikes, our production could be doubled." Of the $400,000 needed to buy a warehouse, $80,000 has already been collected, and the fundraising campaign is in full swing.
"We've done something very simple, but also very positive for the world. It's a great feeling", says the Laureate. But he is not content to rest on his laurels: "It took me 15 years to get to 100,000. My new challenge is to get to 200,000 in less than 10 years."
Published in 2007