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Changing the world two wheels at a time

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Changing the world two wheels at a time
“How can you expect a man who stays in a shack and wakes up everyday with rubbish on his doorstep, to care enough to even want to listen to someone speaking about the global problems we are facing?” Meshack Nchupetsang, the owner of Eyethu Cycle Shop asks.

In 2002 the answer to that question, triggered by adversity, came to Nchupetsang. A  downturn in the economy meant that he was retrenched, loosing his job as a Logistics Manager. At that same time he met up with people from The Bicycling Empowerment Network(BEN).

“You need to be able to build a bridge of communication with a person before you can begin chatting to him about the rubbish on his doorstep,” Mr Nchupetsang said. “When I heard about BEN, things just clicked; I knew then that bicycles would be the bridge for me into the Westlake and broader community.”

BEN is a non-profit organization whose main aim is to address poverty and mobility through the promotion of the humble bicycle. The organization collects donated used and low cost bicycles from China and European countries, like Britain, Germany and Holland and then distributes them to the people of low-income areas through the set up of Bicycle Empowerment Centers(BEC).

BEC’s are simply containerized workshops that are stocked with these bikes and tools needed for bicycle repairs and maintenance. A local person, preferably from a previously disadvantaged sector, is then given all the training and support needed to run the BEC as a business as well as being trained to service and repair all types of bicycles.

“I have always wanted to have a business like this; that has a global impact, that touches on fundamental issues like saving money, mobility, decreasing the carbon footprint and empowering people, both socially and economically,” Mr Nchupetsang said. “I pay for the shipping costs and import taxes of the bicycles, service them in my container and then sell bikes as good as new to clients for much reduced rates.”

“I recently sold a landmark 3000th bike,” Mr Nchupetsang said proudly, adding that 2500 of those were to residents in the Westlake area. Mr Nchupetsang, himself an avid cyclist, said that before he started his business he conducted a survey of the Westlake area and found that less than 0,5% of the population were using bicycles. Now, just 11 years later, according to Mr Nchupetsang, more than 87% of residents use bicycles to get to work or school, to go down to the shop to buy electricity or groceries and for sport and recreation.

Mr Nchupetsang reckons that, although most of his customers are elderly people and young people just starting off in life, he has seen a dramatic increase of learners beginning to commute to school on pedal power. “There was a time when it would just be me cycling with my children to school, but now there are many students riding to school everyday,” he said, adding that he is a firm believer in advocating the use of safety clothing, like helmets, and adhering to the road safety rules.

A constant source of joy for Mr Nchupetsang is knowing that his business is changing the lives of people in his community for the better. According to him, cycling is an accessible and cheap form of transport, is eco friendly and it is fun and promotes a healthy lifestyle.   
“I can put someone on the road for R400,00,” he said, adding that he also offers a 3 month lay-by option to help people own a bicycle.

Sometimes however, people are just too poor to pay for a bicycle or for repairs. Martin(he is known only as Martin), suffers from TB. He has been too sickly to hold down a permanent job and so has serious financial problems. “He brought his bicycle to me, it was in a terrible condition, just about unridable, and he asked me to fix it but said he had no money to pay for the repairs,” Mr Nchupetsang said. “So I agreed to fix it if he would come and help me clean up the yard at my business and home. His bicycle is as good as new now and he is getting better because he is able to get around and get some exercise. I am also teaching Martin to service his own bike,” Mr Nchupetsang explained, adding that he enjoys Martin’s company and that Martin is a very funny guy.

It is not just locally that Mr Nchupetsang has been able to be of a help to people. In 2005 he was fortunate enough to travel across South Africa with the National Department of Transport(NDT). “The NDT bought bicycles and then we went to the Eastern Cape and gave them to people in old age homes and to home based carers. These carers, mostly woman, would have to walk far distances to attend to their patients but now they can get to them much quicker and therefore see more patients in a day,” Mr Nchupetsang said, adding that the recipients of the bicycles also got basic bicycle safety and maintenance training.

Looking forward, Mr Nchupetsang is hoping to expand his business so that he can give locals an opportunity to work. “I would love to empower and train people to fix bicycles and to manage a bicycle shop, especially women,” Mr Nchupetsang said.

For more information about BEC’s, contact Mr Nchupetsang via e-mail: meshack.nchupetsang@gmail.com

Words and images by Clinton Wittstock, Freelance writer and photographer

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