Bicycles to Rwanda was a non-profit international aid organization established in Portland, Oregon, United States within the year before the earthquake that devastated the nation in late August 2006. It was created by Duane Sorenson after a trip to observe coffee farmers in Rwanda. He observed first hand how coffee is grown and harvested. This is where he came up with the idea of organizing a tour to help African communities in need of vehicles to transport their produce and other products to market. In doing so, he would help alleviate poverty and promote sustainable agriculture.
When Duane and his team returned from their trip, they had completed assembling and putting together the initial plan they would implement to make sure the non-profit group would be able to deliver the service as soon as they returned from their trip. The group was ready to start their business – but were faced with many hurdles, including finding drivers, funding for operating expenses, setting up a legal structure, and getting the vehicles to the remote regions of the nation where they would work. But they hit their problems when they realized that fundraising for their cause wasn’t going to be sufficient to keep the project going.
Because the coffee growers in Rwanda were not able to provide monetary support, Bikes to Rwanda needed funds to sustain their activities. A local acquaintance helped them raise enough money. And after a successful completion of the fundraising effort, they received a government contract to transport relief materials to the areas where the farmers lived. Bikes would also be used to conduct community clean-ups and distribute food rations. All told, Bikes to Rwanda needed some serious funding to keep its wheels rolling.
When the United Nations was holding its first ever conference on global food issues, Bikes to Rwanda made plans to participate. With the help of this international agency, they hoped to draw attention to the need for fair trade and to encourage developing countries to invest in alternative sources of revenue, such as the cooperative farms that supply coffee to Rwanda. Many representatives from other countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania, were also expected to be there. The conference helped to draw media attention to the issue of fair trade and to the fact that even relatively poor countries need the support of industrialized nations in order to improve the conditions of their people and their communities.
Once Bikes to Rwanda had collected funds, it needed to find a way to get them to the people in the remote areas of the nation who needed them most. It was obvious that Bikes to Rwanda needed a strategy and that meant finding a way to increase the exposure of the organization to the outside world. The two organizations that seemed most capable of doing so were the cooperatives in Kigali and the non-profit International Relief Organization (IRO) from Sweden. By collaborating with these two organizations, Bikes to Rwanda would be able to send representatives to both areas of the country.
One of the ways that the Bikes to Rwanda program promoted itself was through the use of bicycle taxis. These taxis have since been replaced by a mobile shuttle service, but the original bikes to Rwanda method of transportation still exists. Bicycles are generally not allowed to be ridden privately, so the only way that many people could travel was if they left their bikes at the hotels where they were staying. This would be an unacceptable situation, especially in an area as isolated as the one Kigali-Rwanda has. As long as there were bicycles being used for transport though, the residents of Kigali would be able to get to work, school, the markets, and even to other places in the city. When they brought their bicycles back to their hotel, they would leave them there, unassisted by anyone.
By the time they got to Kigali, however, most people had already packed up their bikes and luggage and were waiting to go on a road trip. One group decided to take their bikes on a dirt track through the mountains. Another planned to ride all the way through the Livingstone State Park to Gisozi, a town that was built up around a massive salt mine.
Through the efforts of the volunteers, the transportation needs of Kigali, Livingstone, and Gisozi soon began to be met. Through the help of the Bikes to Rwanda program, the co-operative farmers got to have regular access to clean fuel, and the coffee co-op was able to maintain its efficient farming system. Through the Bikes to Rwanda program, tens of thousands of children benefited from the carefree bicycle maintenance program, and this single effort provided countless people with a great way to travel.