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September 2008

In a world that is constantly plagued by war, environmental degradation and social injustice, solving problems can be daunting. But sometimes those big problems can be solved with simple answers. Such is the case with Bikes to Rwanda (BTR), a nonprofit organization that works to provide cargo bicycles to cooperative coffee farmers in Rwanda in order to improve people’s quality of life and enhance the production of coffee. Finding an answer to one simple question is all it took to get this development project launched, and the results are inspiring.

To understand the full impact of BTR, one has to understand the political and cultural atmosphere where the organization is working. In Rwanda, where genocide and political turmoil define the recent past, local communities are still in the process of starting over. During the early 1990’s, Rwanda exported approximately 45,000 tons of coffee annually, a very substantial yield for a small, landlocked country. But in 1994, the civil conflict between Rwanda’s two ethnic groups – the Hutus and the Tutsis – led to the massacre of over 1 million Rwandans. The result of the devastation was a country with a weak economy and poor infrastructure. With many of the farmers killed and plantations destroyed, the coffee trade suffered.

Deeply troubled by this heavy history, Duane Sorenson of Portland’s Stumptown Coffee stepped in. During a coffee-buying trip in 2006 to the Koakaka Koperative Ya Kawa Ya Karaba, a cooperative with about 2,000 members, Sorenson sat down with coffee farmers and asked them what they needed to improve their communities. The response? Bicycles. Clean and simple. With that answer etched into his mind, Sorenson returned to Portland and throughout the summer of 2006 called upon the local bike and coffee communities to help him provide a solution.

As a grassroots nonprofit, BTR is committed to real aid that will spark true development in Rwanda. “I don’t want us to be an aid organization; I want us to be a developmental organization,” says Executive Director Clara Seasholtz. What she means is that BTR wants to do more in Rwanda than drop off a couple of bikes, leave and hope things work out. Instead, BTR not only provides cargo bikes that can transport up to 400 pounds of coffee beans, but the organization also ensures that those bicycles are kept in good running order by contracting with local companies to construct bike shops that are then stocked with the necessary materials to provide for bike maintenance. Above and beyond transporting coffee, the cargo bikes also contribute to the communities in other ways: During the off season, bikes are used as bicycle taxis, further deepening their positive impact on the economy.

But why just coffee as a focus of development in Rwanda? Coffee happens to be the second-most-widely-traded global commodity next to oil. As board chair Tom Rousculp says, “Coffee is the soccer of the agricultural world.” Specialty coffee often comes from some of the poorest places in the world. Rwanda is a prime example of this, and here the equation makes sense: A bike to transport coffee beans equals a reliable and efficient transportation infrastructure to get the coffee to the market, which then fuels the economy.

Built on a three-part mission – bikes, bike shops and training – BTR currently operates two functioning bike shops and is planning on building another three by the end of 2008. The idea is to build up a network of bike shops – all locally owned and operated – and allow coffee cooperatives to all take part in a larger national effort. Bike shops are each a microcosm – with an owner and a local clientele – but the hope is that eventually they will become part of a wider system with a central urban retailer that can help with coffee, bikes and beyond. At that point, Bikes to Rwanda will be able to step back and let the operation function organically, on the local level.

Above all, BTR constructs and enriches links between groups in the U.S. and Rwanda. “It’s about building communities: working with communities in the U.S and connecting them through coffee and bikes to communities in Rwanda,” says Seasholtz. Partnered with, among others, Project Rwanda, which builds the bikes, SPREAD (Sustaining Partnerships to enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development) and USAID, BTR is committed to combining coffee and cycles in order to make positive change, reminding us that sometimes all it takes is an elegant answer to a simple question to bring people together to work toward a common good.

Learn more about Bikes to Rwanda, events and how you can help out at www.bikestorwanda.com — AB