Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bikes to Ghana

On Saturday November 10th, 2007 my friend Matt Newlin and I rode our bikes over to a Total Reclaim warehouse in Seattle to help load a shipping container with bicycles to go to Ghana. Total Reclaim provides warehouse space to the Village Bicycle Project and Bike Works who gather up various donated and abandoned bikes. Several times a year VBP ships a container load of bikes to Africa and Saturday was one of the loading days.

After Matt and I carefully locked up our bikes (we wanted to make certain our own means of transport didn't accidentally get loaded in the container!) we pitched in with the work. Some of the bikes we were loading were bikes that had sat for months in the Metro and Sound Transit lost and found, some had been donated by various individuals and organizations. Quite a few folks were helping out and the folks who'd done this before, people like VBP volunteer Meg Watson , Craig Lorch of Total Reclaim, and Melanie Lyons of Bike Works, provided clear direction and guidance to those of us who were new to the process. They also made sure we had both breakfast and lunch, which was good because even with a dozen or so volunteers, it took a full day to get the container loaded.

The bikes were made as small as possible by lowering the seat, removing the pedals, taking off any extra bits and turning the handlebars. Bikes with serious problems were stripped of useful parts and the parts filled every extra bit of usable space in the container. We rolled bikes, stripped bikes, moved bikes and packed bikes. A fellow named Ben Haney had a real skill when it came to figuring out what bike or piece would fit where in the container. I suspect Ben might have played a lot of Tetris at some point in his life.

The most surprising part of the day was also surprisingly hard. I'd expected to see what we saw the most of: Huffys, Magnas and other low-end bikes. There were also some very nice and serviceable old Treks, Giants, Peugeots, Bridgestones and things like that. But there were a few bikes, a full Xtracycle, a custom 531 Rodriguez and an unlabeled Campy Record equipped road bike that Matt and I argued would do more good at Bike Works. "Keep the bikes here, sell them at Bike Works, and send the money to Africa" was our basic pitch. Meg Watson agreed with our logic, but that those bikes had been donated to go to Africa. Meg was right and we have to respect the wishes of the donors. We loaded the bikes into the container. It was really hard.

At the end of a long day we got 487 whole bikes, who knows how many tires, brakes, wheels, derailleurs, saddles, handlebars and other assorted bike bits packed into that shipping container. On the ride home Matt and I speculated that maybe years from now we'll see some African rider racing in the Olympics or the Tour de France. The interviewer will say, "how did you get into bicycle racing?" and the rider will reply, "it was the darnedest thing, some big container full of bikes from America had this one Campy-equipped racing bike tucked in with all this other stuff..."

Maybe it won't go that way.

But I want to load the next container bound for Ghana and I want to get more involved in collecting the bikes to go to good causes. And if someone wants to donate a high-buck bike I'll still try to talk them into turning that bike into money and using the money to pay for shipping or training Africans in bike repair or buying tools to keep the bikes going.

The website at:

has great stories of how bikes and bike know-how change lives in Africa. If you've got a bike that you're not using folks like Bike Works, VPB or your local equivalent can repurpose it and do some real good, maybe in your neighborhood or maybe on the other side of the world. And if you've got a little bit of skill with a wrench, that can do a world of good.


Tammy said...

I'm surprised about the quality of most of the bikes you mention. When I was working at Montlake last summer, I tried to donate some decent bike to BikeWorks, but they wouldn't take them... they were very picky. And these were NOT Magnas. hmm.

Anyway, good cause, sounds like a rewarding day for you :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, Kent, and thanks for helping ship that container, too, thats great! I volunteer a bit of my time at the Bike Library here in Iowa City ( and we just had a steering committee meeting last week dealing with issues like these. Is it better to ebay something for more money if we could sell it locally albeit for less? Should we pull that XT der off a bike to sell it while giving the user a fine and functional "townie" level derailleur? As long as the parts and bikes are getting used I am happy but there is a world of issues to contend with.


Matt McFee said...

Nice work, Kent. This program is a nice way to keep old clunkers from rusting in landfills too.

Tai-po said...


Tell these guys to go hit the transfer stations. You'd be amazed at how many nice bikes end up in the recycle pile. I found a barely used 80's Univega touring bike in the pile...had a dent on the top tube cus someone dropped something on top of it. After new tires, cables, and brake pads, it's now being used as my sister's college beater bike.


John Speare said...

Hey Kent, (Spokane, WA) has recently partnered with VPB to ship a container from SPokane. Our goal is to load next summer. Maybe we can provide an excuse for you to take another ride over here when we load.

We are very clear with folks that donate bikes about how we handle donations. Where the bike ends up depends on the bike: some go to Africa, some go to local kids, others are sold to fund other projects. Our story is here:

Coach Tammy: until we had VBP as a place to donate bikes to, we also had to be a bit picky about bikes we took. Old ten speeds with super tall gears, steel wheels, tiny handlebars and hi-ten steel frames are hard to make useful as commuters in a hilly area. We used to turn away a lot of old schwinns.

Nick Wright said...

This reminds me of a news story I saw recently:

If someone had done something like this for that girl, things might have been different for her...

Unknown said...

Hi Kent,

Enjoying your blog. I've been riding and racing bikes in Ghana for the past year and a bit. I can assure you that the finer VBP bikes do end up with the local racers.

You can read about it here (plus lots of other bike/travel junk too)