WORDS: Jake Fuchs PHOTOS: Riders For Health
Most of us would agree that motorcycles make us feel better. Flying unencumbered over the road on the backs of our bikes elevates the soul as well as the body. Whacking open the throttle and tearing through the air can’t help but put a smile on our wind-whipped faces. Yet while many of us look to motorcycles as a recreational remedy to life’s daily troubles, few of us realize that they have the ability to actually save lives. Riders for Health is an international non-profit whose work demonstrates every day that the healing power of motorcycles goes well beyond spiritual.
For much of the developing world, getting from point A to B isn’t as simple as taking off in your car, dodging the occasional pothole, and stopping at one of the dozens of gas stations along the way when you run low on fuel. Paved roads, gas stations, and service centers are a rare luxury in many countries. In rural areas, those things can be completely non-existent. Naturally, that only matters assuming you have access to motorized transport to begin with, which 70% of the rural population of Africa does not. If you live in rural Africa and you want to go somewhere, you’ll most likely be walking there.
This can be a real problem if you’re sick. Half the people in developing countries live more than five miles away from the nearest health facility. Five miles is a lengthy walk when you’re healthy, far worse when you’re ill. Why wouldn’t you call for an ambulance? A good idea, except for the fact that the ambulance likely broke down last week, and there’s no technician or parts around to fix it. Health workers are ready to help; they just can’t reach you.
Riders for Health founders Barry and Andrea Coleman, along with former GP racer Randy Mamola, first encountered this problem in the late 1980s while working to raise funds to benefit children in developing countries. On several trips to Africa, they repeatedly came across vehicles intended for the delivery of health services that were discarded prematurely due to a lack of basic maintenance and parts. In some cases, the vehicles were nearly new and only needed a $3 part to get them running again. It became quickly apparent that the largest obstacle to improving health in the developing world was not a deficit of charity but rather a misunderstanding of the problem.
They set about creating programs specifically targeted at overcoming challenges in delivering health care to rural areas of developing countries. As people who spent their whole lives around motorcycles, they recognized that the cost effectiveness and durability of bikes like the Yamaha AG200 held real potential. At the same time, they understood that any vehicle, no matter how well suited for the conditions, was only as good as the service that maintained it. If skilled hands and parts weren’t around to keep the bike running, it became little more than a poignant visual reminder of a missed opportunity to bring lasting benefit to the people it was intended to help. Consequently, their efforts focused not just on providing vehicles, but largely on empowering local people with the tools and training they needed to make sure that those vehicles kept working. That way, health workers could count on being able to reach remote communities with life-saving services every day.
Today, Riders mobilizes health workers in eight African countries. The organization maintains over 1000 vehicles and employs 300 local staff that perform an array of functions from program and logistics management, to service technicians, to medical sample couriers. Riders manages nationwide programs in The Gambia and Lesotho, and regional programs in Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi, Riders operates smaller grassroots programs that aim to increase the reach of local care-giving groups. As a social enterprise, Riders forms partnerships in all of its programs with health providing organizations. Its partners range in size from the United Nations and national ministries of health to small, community organizations like the Diocese of Masasi in Tanzania.
While Riders has grown substantially over the years, it has never lost sight of its roots in motorcycling. The organization now manages four-wheeled ambulances and SUVs, but motorcycles still comprise eighty percent of its vehicles. More than half the bikes used in Riders transportation programs are Yamaha AG 200s. Over the years, the little 200 has proven to be a very capable tool in overcoming barriers of terrain and distance in delivering vital healthcare to rural Africans.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, few people in the UK are familiar with the AG 200. You’re unlikely to find it at your local Yamaha dealership. If you did, you probably wouldn’t dwell on it, let alone buy one. It doesn’t have much power; its single-cylinder four-stroke lump only puts out about 16 bhp and 12.3 lb.-ft. of torque. Its top speed of 63 mph isn’t exactly blistering. With a dry weight of 247 lbs. and hydraulic dampers instead of a rear shock connecting the swingarm to the frame, it won’t win any motocross competitions. Even the name AG is short for agriculture, which gives you an idea of where this bike fits on the spectrum between function and flash.
On the other hand, the AG 200 shines in one very important way that its specifications don’t reflect. Like a certain drum-beating pink rabbit, the sturdy Yamaha keeps going, and going no matter what you throw at it. The list of special features that help it overcome challenging African landscapes is long: A fully enclosed chain cover protects the bike’s chain from dirt and water. A sealed drum brake system safeguards the bike’s stopping power. A robust skid pad protects the frame and motor from large rocks and debris along the bike’s path. Brake and clutch lever guards help the rider keep his digits intact when riding through brush and trees. Its hydraulic dampers are five-position adjustable in order to accommodate heavy loads and rough terrain. Finally, the AG even has two kickstands with extra large bases to keep from sinking when parked on loose or muddy ground.
Gary Taylor, Riders’ training manager, isn’t short on praise for the humble AG 200. “The best thing with the AG is the air cooled four stroke engine which will put up with deep water and deep mud along with the heat in Africa,” he enthuses. “Also the gearing on the AG is very low so it will pull up very steep hill climbs and through deep sand and mud. This is one of those bikes you can park, forget about for two years, and then come back to pick up where you left off.”
It all adds up to a bike that is very good at saving lives. Aisha Issa, a community health worker in Busia, Kenya, can now reach over 20 times more people with the aid of her AG than before, when she would have to walk or take an unpredictable local bicycle taxi. Every week, on average, over 30,000 additional people across Africa receive health services thanks to the increased mobility Riders’ motorcycles provide health workers; that’s 1.5 million people a year.
Beyond saving lives, Aisha says her motorcycle has had an additional and surprising effect on her and her community. “[Riders] motorcycle has really changed my life as a woman in the community. I am now respected. Whenever they see me riding the motorcycle they turn to look at me and wonder that women too know how to ride motorcycles.”
To date, with help from the trusty Yamaha AG 200, Riders for Health has improved access to health care for 12.5 million people. The bike is used to support health initiatives ranging from immunizations and laboratory sample transport, to disease prevention and monitoring, to health education, nutrition advice, and prenatal care. Riders’ goal is to expand its programs and services to provide vital health care for an additional 15 million people across Africa by the end of 2013. In order to achieve that goal, Riders will need to more than double its fleet of motorcycles. Past performance leaves little doubt over which bike will be called on for the challenge.
To find out more about Riders for Health and how you can support their life-saving work in Africa, visit www.riders.org.
Experience Africa with Riders for Health
If the idea of piloting a Yamaha AG200 through some of the most beautiful countryside in Africa while supporting Riders for Health appeals to you, Riders’ offers Experience Africa.
A ride of a lifetime, this unique nine-day fundraising trip through Zambia allows a small group of no more than 30 motorcyclists to witness first-hand how the vehicle they are using transports critical health care to rural communities.
The 1000km ride passes through breathtaking landscapes filled with gazelles, elephants, zebras, and lions. Trip participants will stop to admire Victoria Falls and watch the sun set over Lake Kariba. They will also visit rural health clinics and come to understand the real challenges that face health workers in reaching their patients.
Experience Africa is a stark contrast to other off-road rides in Africa that take a ‘visor down’ approach, blasting without seeing into the horizon, missing some of the most incredible scenery on Earth.
MotoGP star Alvaro Bautista joined the 2011 Experience Africa hosted by Randy Mamola. It was Alvaro’s first time riding through Africa. He shares his thoughts on the trip:
I always knew that it was important to support Riders for Health when I donated items to their auctions and met with fans in the paddock and pit-lane, but to see what they do with the money they raise is amazing.’
Another 2011 Experience Africa participant, Andrew Pincott from the UK, had this to say:
‘I’ve waited two years for this – and it exceeded every expectation: good company, a common passion for Riders for Health and for bikes. Who would have thought a humble Yamaha AG 200 could be so much fun!’
The next Experience Africa ride, hosted by Randy Mamola is April 30 – May 10, 2013. For more information, visit the trip website www.riders-experience.org, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (312) 373-1447.