Our driver, Giovanni, has a good nose for a cargo bike. As we cruise along the main drag in Vosloorus, some 30km from the centre of Johannesburg, he spots the merest hint of Qhubeka yellow or Coca-Cola red out of the corner of his eye and spins the four wheel drive around for us to take a closer look.
A young man is outside a cash-and-carry busy loading 24 two-litre drinks bottles onto the back rack of his bike. It is a precarious and top-heavy cargo, and he is struggling to keep it upright, but away he goes to sell on to fellow inhabitants of his local community.
A steady stream of bikes pulls up, mostly the robust – and aptly named – Buffalo machines supplied by the Qhubeka charity, and loaded with staggering amounts of produce. In settlements such as the Wolf Community we are about to visit, a bicycle is a way of connecting to areas of the city previously unreachable on foot.
Half a million South African schoolchildren walk over two hours each way to reach school. As Qhubeka founder Anthony Fitzhenry explained, girls in the family rise well before dawn to do their chores before setting off for school, with more work to be done on their return. Add four hours of walking to that day and it is easy to see why the humble bicycle makes such a difference in cut-off areas such as the Wolf Community, a 25,000-strong settlement formed predominantly by refugees from unsettled and war-torn neighbouring states.
When Fitzhenry and his team arrived in Vosloorus two years ago, the residents were lethargic and unmotivated, unable to find work, unable to see any release from the all too apparent grinding poverty and hunger. “It is mostly families run by women. The men leave. The HIV infection rate is pretty high. When we came here three years ago, there was nothing: nobody was doing anything.”
Qhubeka do not give bikes away, but operate incentive schemes. Nurture 200 acacia and combretum trees from seedlings to healthy saplings which can be sold and a bike will be exchanged in return. The red bikes, sponsored by Coca-Cola and available to women only, are in return for 4,500 two-litre plastic bottles. It could be argued that this is a global empire doing a little easy PR on the side to ease its conscience, but it is hard to knock their motives when you see the benefits in person. The neighbourhood gets cleaned up; the women get mobilised.
Walking the settlement, dodging the rivers of muddy water underfoot during a day of torrential rain, it is hard to picture the tree growers’ main concern during a South African summer: “The wind and the heat are problematical, which is why they have these covers,” says Fitzhenry, as we duck beneath netting slung between rudimentary corrugated iron shacks, rainwater pouring through gaps in the roofs. “And water is absolutely essential, as there is only one tap for each 50 households, so that is a big problem.”
“Tree-preneurs” is the term Fitzhenry uses for those in the growing scheme, while “waste-preneurs” concentrate on recycling. Others produce firewood for the harsh winters, while donated clothing is another method of earning a living. Qhubeka’s star tree-grower in the Wolf Community, Glamini, is also a trained bike mechanic – more strings to his bow.
New communities do not always welcome Qhubeka with open arms – there is natural scepticism, understandably – but Fitzhenry estimates 100 delivered bikes as the tipping point at which they “get it”. And judging by the cottage industries apparent in many of the homes in Wolf Community, these people have got it.
Meanwhile, on a marked out football pitch that has turned from the usual dustbowl into a red-tinged slurry, a day of cargo bike racing is in progress, wave after wave of shivering kids patiently waiting their turn before hammering round for a few laps of the track. Some have no shoes. Some can barely reach the pedals. All try their hearts out.
For the young guys from the MTN-Qhubeka team, this is a humbling experience. Riders often get to visit their sponsor’s facilities, but it is hard to imagine a tour of Quick Step’s factory being quite so moving…
And it is interesting to note the riders’ responses to the day at the cargo bike races and who reacts to what they have witnessed. Most got stuck in, got soaking wet, and got in the spirit of the event, but it was Linus Gerdemann, the team’s new star signing, who seemed to really take it all in.
“What can we do to help?” he asked Fitzhenry as we left the houses.
“We need cash,” was the blunt reply. “It costs $200 per bike, and another $200 to administer each one.”
And there’s the rub.
Read more about the work of Qhubeka and make a donation here. MTN-Qhubeka will feature in issue 45 of Rouleur.