Pedals for Progress
The organization Pedals for Progress (P4P) has an intriguing origin story. In a small town in 1970s Ecuador, a poverty-stricken carpenter dragged 40 pounds of steel hand tools down a dirt road. Each step felt heavier than the last. Moreover, this was the trip back home after hours of work nailing boards together and fastening tables. This man had to carry his tools with him at all times; after all, it was his livelihood. It was too risky to leave them in a workshop. Despite his talent and passion, the man was broke and persistently, unbelievably tired. Without a way out of this painful trek, he felt his body would surely give out before he could retire.

The carpenter knew of a much wealthier man, Cesar Pena. A landlord and fellow carpenter, Cesar owned several strips of land in the jungle along with several farm animals. Missing an eye and multiple fingers, his situation was much worse than the poor man who lived in the same town. Yet others regarded Cesar as an incredibly productive worker despite doing his job just five days a week.

This baffled a young American Peace Corp volunteer staying in the town. The volunteer asked the poor carpenter why he was unable to keep up economically with Cesar Pena. Incredulous, the poor man informed him of Cesar’s bicycle. The bike allowed him to travel several miles on either side of his home.

Pedals for Progress

Decades later, that Peace Corps volunteer, David Schweidenback, is now the founder of Pedals for Progress. Pedals for Progress is one of the largest distributors of used bikes to developing nations. Since 1991, it has operated as a nonprofit organization in New Jersey. It started when Schweidenback noticed that people threw an abundance of bikes into garbage cans in his neighborhood during a bleak financial time while working as a carpenter. Connecting his experience overseas with what U.S. citizens were wasting at home, he chose to make a difference.

As he explained to The Borgen Project, “I decided if I wasn’t doing anything and I’m not making money and I’m just sitting here bored, I’m going to go out and collect a dozen bikes and I’m going to ship them back to Ecuador. Just like a freebie, a one-off freebie, just to help some people out. And that was the beginning of it.” That dozen eventually exceeded over 100,000. Schweidenback’s work has earned him awards from Rolex and Forbes. He even received the title of a 2008 CNN Hero.

How Does Pedals for Progress Work?

P4P operates both internationally and domestically. On the international side, the company teams up with partners based in those countries rather than opening up bike shops around the globe. These international partners provide the shops. In turn, these shops serve to also create jobs in the community whilst selling bicycles at a fraction of the cost they would be in the United States.

Pedals for Progress innovated a new system to keep these shops self-sustaining called a “revolving fund.” First, P4P foots the bill for the first shipment of bicycles. This leads to the domestic side of the operation. Working with organizations like Rotary Club and various churches, it runs collections at a minimum of $10 per bike donation. Other methods to raise money include fundraisers, grants and donations from rich individuals or corporations. With these monetary donations and selling within the impoverished communities at affordable prices, overseas partners can continue to function for years without extra assistance.

Can a Bike Really Make a Difference?

Studies show that the simple introduction of a bicycle can have a lasting impact on the economies and well-being of peoples in developing countries. A 2009 series of studies by three organizations ran quantitative experiments in multiple nations. The purpose was to see if offering bikes to people for transportation as an alternative to walking would financially improve their lives.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy study in Uganda found that all the households that received bicycles improved regarding cultivation and agriculture. Diversity of time increased, showing that the select Ugandans were more able to perform non-agricultural duties. In addition, the study indicated more trips to the markets and medical centers of their respective regions. Overall, bicycles resulted in a 35% increase in income over the course of the experiment. The other two organizations, Tanzania’s International Labor Office and World Bicycle Relief in Sri Lanka, yielded similar results to varying degrees.

What About Sewing Machines?

In 1999, Schweidenback included sewing machines in his list of items to ship. His reasoning: while riding a bicycle can take one to a job, a sewing machine is a job. However, Pedals for Progress was unable to ship more than 200 per year for a long time. It took until 2015 when he adopted a new brand, Sewing Peace, that he was able to ship out more than 500 bikes each year.

Sending out sewing machines as an alternative to bicycles can reap a few benefits that could not come anywhere else. For one, shipping them costs much less and puts less of a burden on overseas partners that cannot handle a full container of 500 bikes.

Early Setback, Lasting Results

Ironically enough, Schweidenback’s first mission to help Ecuador’s bike shortage never came to fruition in the way he hoped. Before Pedals for Progress was what it is today, he held a meeting with the Ecuadorian Consulate to donate bicycles to those who need them.

Speaking with The Borgen Project, Schweidenback relayed his early challenges shipping bikes to Ecuador. However, despite his early setbacks, his passion for giving the less fortunate a leg up drove him to help over 30 countries around the world.

Zachary Sherry
Photo: Flickr