Enterprising School Leavers

Enterprising School Leavers
Learning Brief

Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN)

Improving access to schools and boosting educational performance – one bicycle at a time

Category: Enterprising School Leavers | Employment/education opportunities for particularly vulnerable groups | 30 May, 2013 - 02:00


Transportation can be more than just a means of getting from point A to B. Research has shown that transportation interventions can be a “catalyst for development”[1], from providing access to employment to helping increase attendance in the classroom. In South Africa, for example, while the reasons for school absenteeism are varied, the five most commonly cited reasons by school principals, district officials and provincial departments are: poverty, lack of parental involvement, food insecurity – and transport.[2]

The Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) South Africa was established in Cape Town in 2002 to address poverty and mobility through the promotion of the bicycle in all its forms. To achieve its mission, BEN imports used bicycles from overseas and distributes them to low-income areas; trains recipients of the bicycles in safety and maintenance; establishes Bicycle Empowerment Centres (BEC's); and encourages cities to implement bicycle planning and infrastructure. In addition, BEN assists with the planning of events to help promote the use of the bicycle as a form of mobility - otherwise known as active transport.

For the past seven years, BEN has also been a service provider to the National Shova Kalula programme, which delivers bicycles to schools to help those who live five kilometres away or more overcome the challenge of getting to school. BEN has provided safety training to all those who initially received bicycles through the programme, allowing the organisation to observe key challenges schools have in sustaining the use of the bicycles, namely:

  1. Maintenance of bicycles;
  2. Parents not supporting their children in the use of the bicycles due to safety concerns;
  3. Children at risk of accident due to a lack of road and cycling safety awareness. 

In response to these challenges, BEN has developed a model of practice to make the use of bicycling more sustainable and effective to improve the attendance and punctuality of learners – and ultimately enhance their chances of educational achievement. However, as BEN’s experience has shown, a one-size-fit-all model is not necessarily the solution; flexibility is needed given that the use of bicycles varies greatly between rural and urban schools. For example, the rural schools focus on using bicycles for transport to school whereas urban schools focus more on out-of-school cycling clubs. 

This learning brief concentrates on the challenges encountered in both contexts and proposed measures to overcome these challenges to ensure the sustainability of the programme.

Implementation strategy of the BEN’s Bicycle Mechanics & Safety Programme

In the last year, we have delivered the BEN’s Bicycle Mechanics & Safety Programme to 18 rural schools and two urban schools with bicycles. The particular focus of the model has been on delivering Safety and Basic Maintenance training to these schools to ensure the safety of the learners, as well as supplying them with the spares and tolls needed to make their bicycling programmes sustainable.

Benefits and challenges BEN’s Bicycle Mechanics & Safety Programme for rural schools

Monitoring of the impact of our delivery to rural schools was conducted through questionnaires and site visits[3]. The results demonstrated that bicycling makes a difference to children accessing education in rural areas, with every school that received the safety and mechanical training reporting that:

  • The bicycles they use have been of great benefit to those who travel long distances 
  • The safety training built confidence in parents to let their children cycle
  • The maintenance training had helped them to keep the bicycles road worthy.            

All the schools we visited, except for two, had bicycles in operation and children who had cycled on that day. The benefits of the programme as described by the school included:

  • Improved timely arrival at the school by those who cycle
  • Earlier home arrival by those who cycle
  • Timely arrival at pick-up point for buses by those who cycle
  • Improved health and weight loss
  • Reduced travel time
  • Improved school attendance

       "Attendance is good and they are now on time for school" (Educator, Hawston Primary)

Benefits were also expressed by the learners themselves, as noted below:

"The bicycle changed my life a lot. I cycle half past four in the morning from Quarrie and come at half past six at Ennxhlingshof but I enjoy it a lot because it is good exercise. When I was walking sometimes I came late on the road and had to turn around and go back home. Sometimes it is very cold because I ride far to the bus pick up point, I ride past three farms to the pick up point." (Female learner from Albert Myburgh, Bredasdorp)

"The bicycle has changed my life a lot I lost weight and have become very sportive. I can get up later than before. My mother is no longer stressed about how I am going to get to school, this is financially good for us because even if it rains I can cycle to the pick-up point. My life changed a lot I am now earlier at the pick-up point and earlier at home with the school." (Learner, Albert Mybergh)

Parents also expressed seeing benefits of the programme, such as being less worried and stressed about children’s journey to schools.

"As an elder I feel BEN is making a large difference… It helps that children arrive easily to school. BEN's training was also responsible for the kids being able to repair and maintain their bicycles themselves." (Mr Januarie Bruintjiesrivier, Primary School Overberg Area)

"I felt very nervous before the road rules were taught at school. I thought my child didn't know what side of the road to cycle on and she did not know the stop signs. When I heard the people came and taught her, I was happy. Now she knows her road rules and on which side of the road she has to ride. She also knows when to use her bell, when she needs to stop and also to look right and left before riding." (H. Jacobs Parent, Rooiheuwel Primary nr Oudtshoorn)

"Parents feel more comfortable now they know that their children case use the road safely." (Educators, Klaasvoogds Primary, Ashton)

But the benefits have not come without their challenges. The rural school bicycle programmes have had to find ways to overcome challenges, such as not all children cycling according to safety rules at one school despite receiving safety training; or the misuse of bicycles on weekends by family and friends in community, resulting in the need to keep bicycles at school on the weekend or at the farm pick-up points to counter this risk.

"It was nice to have a bicycle, when I had the bicycle I arrived at the school early. When I never had a bicycle I arrived at school late. There were a few children that did not follow the road rules that BEN taught us, so the bicycles got taken back. Now I came late to school and home I will try to help the others follow the road rules. Please give me back my bicycle I miss him very, very much". (Waden, learner Weltevrede Primary, Barrydale)

To overcome the sense of loss in children from Barrydale whose bicycles were removed due to misuse by some learners, the school has entered into negotiation with parents as to terms and conditions of use so that the bicycles can be returned.

Other challenges encountered during the implementation of the programme in the rural context:

  • Finding spare parts locally and sourcing funding to pay for these parts, particularly on an ongoing basis.
  • Cycling in winter and in wet weather: many of the children do not cycle to school on rainy days and, as a result, do not attend school on these days. In addition, the unpredictable watercourses in the areas present a risk to many schools whose learners have to cross rivers that flash flood in heavy rainfall.   
  • Older children bringing younger children to school cannot access the use of bicycles.
  • Size of the bicycles: many of the children suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome so the 26-inch bicycles given to the learners are too big and unsafe.
  • Limited capacity for repairs.
  • Getting broader community support to sustain the programme in the long term.
  • Lack of HR capacity in schools: We were struck by the lack of support rural schools received with regards to life skills and sports programmes. The schools were very keen to train staff and community members to run such programmes, but there seemed to be little opportunity for them to do so.

To address these challenges, BEN is considering the following measures:

  • The need for extra safety equipment and suitable raingear (lights, waterproof coats, reflective bibs, bells and bags).
  • The use of half wheelers on bicycles for older children with siblings age 4 and up where roads are a reasonable condition. These could be imported from overseas together with the others recycled bicycles brought in.
  • To overcome size issues, we distributred some smaller bicycles as prizes to schools who showed they were using and maintaining their bicycles, and that had identified certain children who needed them, but for future bike provision, size must be taken into account to a greater extent.
  • The caretakers often do repairs but have limited time to do so. Providing them with full mechanical training to carry out repairs more efficiently, as well as additional income to carry out repairs on weekends or after school hours.
  • Engagement with local community for support the project: A few schools have already approached Rotary, Lions or local business to support their bicycling programmes. As we visit schools in the future we hope to build their fundraising capacity to aid their sustainability. 

While the challenges of working in rural areas were considerable, the benefits easily justified the input and cost required.

Benefits and challenges of BEN’s Bicycle Mechanics & Safety Programme for urban schools

We conducted a survey with four schools to see the impact of cycling clubs on the learners. The main areas of impact were:

  • Improved health and fitness (especially with regards to Asthma)
  • Improved concentration and performance in class
  • Less involvement in alcohol, drugs and gangs
  • Improved self esteem
  • Increased sense of responsibility.

As noted by the interviewees:

                 "When I started cycling it was just a bike, when I started cycling with the school it was a whole different thing. I didn't know about wearing a helmet, I did not know the road rules. I used to talk a lot in class because I did not know what was going on. Now I give the answers. You have to focus on the road, now I can focus in the classroom."

                  "Our family became well/ I felt like a new person. My school work got better and I learnt to work"(Celine from Fairmount High, Grassy Park)

                  "If I was not cycling I would be doing drugs and drinking, it keeps me away from them." (Learner from Rocklands High, Mitchell’s Plain).

The cycling clubs in the schools we visited were initiated by BEN. In this period, we ran safety training to one secondary school and supported the others by helping to set up races and access funding. The clubs are run by educators except for in Lavender Hill, where Imfundo Cycles (one of Ben’s Bicycle Empowerment Centres) run the club.

Whilst the cycling does not necessarily reduce travel time to urban schools, it does appear to impact on attendance. Teachers, coaches and learners reported the cyclists become more motivated to attend school and that their marks improve due to better concentration, health and self-esteem. The timing of the rides in afternoons and on the weekends also provides the youth with activities when they would otherwise be vulnerable to becoming involved in drugs, gangs or simply hanging around the streets.  

Implementing the programme in urban schools also came it with its own unique set of challenges:

  • Unsafe roads for peak-time cycling
  • Risk of bicycle theft:
  • Cost of bicycle maintenance

To overcome these challenges, we propose:

  • Cycling as a group or with various stakeholders from the community to ensure the safety of the young cyclists, or with an adult as part of the riding club.
  • Unlike the rural context, bicycles being left at school when not in use can be seen as a positive way to mitigate against theft.

BEN’s learning: The way forward

Over 12 months of implementation, BEN has seen the multiple benefits of school bicycling programmes in both the rural and urban contexts. To ensure the sustainability of these programmes, core practices of safety, mechanics, storage and contracted use of bicycles need to be in place – as well as a further skills transfer process in both contexts. However, the implementation also revealed that a flexible model of practice is needed taking into account the challenges unique to the rural and urban schools, including limited capacity. One such way of doing this is to empower and incentivize the schools to drive the sustainability of their bicycling programmes. To this end, we will be introducing the Bicycling Empowered School Award made up of three levels: bronze, silver and gold. The core output will be a sustainable programme that does not require BEN’s ongoing or direct input, but rather will be monitored for two years once the skills transfer is completed. The criteria for receiving an award will focus on:

  • Bicycling skills integrated into reception upwards 
  • Increased number of children cycling
  • Safety trainer trained
  • Safety training delivered
  • Mechanic trained in BEN’s full three-week course
  • Repairs carried out
  • Promotion of bicycling to the community (e.g. bicycle events held at the school)
  • Community engaged in support and long-term financing of the project for eventual sustaining of the programme.

The intention is that by working to achieve gold level status they will become self-sustaining – and in the process overcome the current challenges facing the schools in the process. There will be a three-year time cap on the project for each school. We are looking forward to launching the awards in a few pilot schools already familiar with the programme, who in turn would be equipped to support other schools to set up and run their own bicycling programmes.

[1] David Booth, Lucia Hanmer and Elizabeth Lovell (2000). “Poverty and Transport: A report prepared for the World Bank in collaboration with DFID”. Overseas Development Unit. Accessed on 18 June 2013 http://www4.worldbank.org/afr/ssatp/resources/html/gender-rg/Source%20%20documents/Technical%20Reports/Poverty/TEPOV1%20poverty%20and%20trans02%20ODI%20for%20WB%20DFID.pdf

[2] Marinda Weideman, Safiyya Goga, Daniel Lopez, Marium Mayet, Ian Macun & Denise Barry (2007): “Learner absenteeism in the South African schooling system”, Researched for the Dept. of Education by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry and Joint Education Trust. Accessed on 17 June at http://www.info.gov.za/view/DownloadFileAction?id=79522.

[3] Communication challenges in the rural areas can make monitoring of progress difficult. As we were offering skills training in safety and maintenance visits were necessary at least twice a year, we used this time for monitoring and data collection a.


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In Short

Learn about the challenges of implementing bicycle programmes in both rural and urban schools to improve school attendance and academic performance.

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