How cycling is key to success of free education project


Kenya still has much work to do to ensure that every child who wants to go to school can. FILE PHOTO | NMG

How did you go to school when you were young? For many in developed countries the answer is a school bus or parent’s car.

But reliable mobility is not something pupils in Kenya take for granted. For Kenyans, transportation to school is, quite literally, a ticket to a better future.

In 2003, when Kenya made primary school free for everyone, enrolment surged to 104 per cent.

As many schools struggled to accommodate the influx of new pupils, a shortage of classrooms forced learners in rural areas to travel farther from their homes in search of enrolment.

This extra travel time lowered attendance rates and negatively affected learning outcomes. According to one study, just 63 per cent of pupils enrolled for free primary school completed while 58 per cent of those who enrolled in secondary schools did not graduate.

Punishing commutes are thus depriving Kenya’s young people of education; girls in particular are disadvantaged by distance.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution: match free education with free bicycles. This is slowly happening in rural Kenya and results have been remarkable.

Consider, for example, the story of Carol, a 15-year-old secondary school student who spent years walking 12 kilometres to and from class every day.

Born to a poor family, Carol often went without lunch, which severely affected her ability to learn and concentrate.

And yet, the long walk and hunger pangs were not the worst of her problems; like thousands of other girls in rural Kenya Carol’s day starts with making breakfast for her family and cleaning their mud-thatched house. When she returns home after school she washes dishes and helps make dinner. By the time the chores are done Carol is usually too tired to do her homework.

But a few years ago her life changed significantly when World Bicycle Relief, an American charity that provides free bicycles, cut her commuting time from two hours to 30 minutes by giving her a two-wheeler.

Now, Carol arrives at school feeling fresh and alert, which has dramatically improved her grades.

Students are not the only ones who suffer from a lack of reliable transport means. When farmers, health-care workers, and public-sector employees cannot get to their jobs promptly, productivity drops and output declines. Since 2005 World Bicycle Relief has distributed more than 400,000 bicycles around the world, benefiting some two million people.

But for female students in Kenya the gift of mobility has been especially transformative.

Today, when Carol rides to school on her bicycle she is actively dismantling gender stereotypes that pervade many African societies. For girls, the pressure to drop out of school and marry young is intense; in fact 23 per cent of Kenyan girls are married by the time they turn 18.

By getting to school on time Carol is building self-esteem and giving herself a chance at success in education.

Kenya still has much work to do to ensure that every young person who wants to go to school can.

It is comforting to know that not every solution needs to be complicated.

BRIAN MALIKA is a social worker and reproductive-health counsellor.