Andrea Coleman: Why managed transport is important in development

Andrea Coleman's chosen tool to deliver help in African rural communities may not be so popular, but its mission redefines "reaching out" in many ways. Photo by: Tom Oldham

Motorcycles and development work? At first glance, they don’t seem to be related.

This was initially true for Andrea Coleman, who had no background knowledge of international development work when she co-founded Riders for Health 26 years ago. She initially took to organizing motorcycling events to raise money for their chosen mission — helping maintain vehicles for health care workers in Africa — before she eventually learned there were monetary support systems like grants that nonprofits such as hers could apply for.

Her chosen tool to help may not be the norm in the aid community — and winning grants from large institutional donors such as the U.K. Department for International Development remain a struggle for her organization — but she finds something unique about motorcycles that fits well with development.

“There’s something very individual about motorcycles … if your motorcycle breaks down on the side of the road, another motorcyclist will stop. And in a way, [with] my husband and co-founder, we’ve always said Riders for Health is almost like seeing another motorcyclist in trouble and stopping to help. And that’s really in a way what we did in Africa,” Coleman told Devex.

Coleman has now made it her mission to “stop and help” — from helping a woman health worker in Zimbabwe eight years ago to get her motorcycle running again, to helping government health ministers get a strategy in place with a five-year health budget in Zambia, one of the seven countries where Riders for Health is present.

But it’s not just getting from point A to point B. This motorcycle enthusiast and social enterprise CEO explained Riders for Health’s humble beginnings, their struggles in getting more people to see the importance of managed transport and how motorcycles help empower women in a unique way.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation with Coleman:

Donors often go after the tangible projects, such as a education infrastructure or improving water access. But this isn’t as easy in the case of Riders for Health. How do you secure funding for your work?

When we started Riders for Health, we assumed that nobody would ever fund us. Because my picture of charities that got funding … I mean, you’ve got to remember, Barry and I, neither of us come from an international development background. We’ve never been involved in charity work. We’ve never been involved in Africa. We didn’t know about global health. We didn’t know anything.

We came by this by seeing motorcycles broken down, and women and children not getting health care maybe 20 miles away. And we said, we can do something about this, but we have no background in this. My husband was a journalist and a writer, and previously a lawyer, and I was a sports fanatic and a public relations person.

So I assumed, knowing what I knew, that nobody would ever donate money and would nobly come along and say: “Oh yes if you’re going to maintain motorcycles for healthy living in rural communities in Africa, yes, we’ll give you some money.”

So I thought, how are we going to fund this work?

Because of my motorcycling background, we’re able to put on events on the basis of providing fans of MotoGP – like meeting their hero, or having an opportunity to purchase their hero’s helmet. I started putting on those sort of events and we started to earn the money to get our work started. And then we found that there are indeed people who liked what we were doing; we’ve shown that we were able to do it, and that it made a huge difference, so people started to donate some money. And then I learned that there were things called “grants.” So I applied for an innovations grant at the World Bank, as well as to the U.K. lottery. And from there I learned how to write a successful grant.

Some people in the United States donated money, and then we were recognized by the Schwab Foundation as a social entrepreneur. And although they don’t give money, they open up networks for you.

We would always tell DfID what we do. But we’ve never had any support from them. We’re not quite sure why, but now, through the matching grant, we have had this funding from them. But really, after being in existence for 26 years, it certainly has taken a long time to get support.  

And of course the other way in which we earn money is that we charge the ministries of health we work with per kilometer, because we couldn’t possibly afford to pay all the fuel and parts for running vehicles of ministries of health across Africa. But this varies. If you’re covering very harsh terrain, it means tires got worn much more quickly. It’s harder on the suspension unit of an ambulance and uses slightly more fuel. In computing it, we take into account fuel, the training of riders and drivers, the consumables — for example, piston rings or spark plugs, lubricant foil and so on. In short, all the things you use on running a vehicle. We have highly trained local mechanics, and we commit to vehicles having no downtime.

We earn 46 percent of our income at the moment. And then the rest is either individual donations or grants.

There’s clearly a need for transportation in development work. But you currently only work in seven countries across Africa. Any plans for expansion?

Yeah we do. But you know, an organization like ours has to do three things really. We have to make sure we’re delivering high-quality work run by local people, they have to be highly trained in delivering great work to their partners, and we have to be extending to new countries, but we also need to create models that other people can replicate because this is a vital service we’re providing and yet we can’t become the U.N. of transportation. We need other people to take this up … Of course you’ve got to manage your money really well, but this has got be run where the mission comes first reaching those people, predictably and reliably, in the hardest to reach places.

We do work for other organizations, but we’ve never found anyone who wants to do the work we’re doing, who had wanted to take this up as a business. We would like to get it to a point where people are inspired to do it. They would not be able to make a lot of money, but they would certainly be able to create a business that ensures good health care can be delivered, but also keep themselves alive.

But at the moment, it does need grant support … Much of my time is taken up with telling people not about Riders for Health as such, but about how important managed transport is if you’re going to reach the people who need health care and that you’re going to do it in an equitable way. You can’t just provide health care for people who live in cities, otherwise you’re going to encourage everybody to live in cities — and we don’t want that. To reach people where they live and not neglect and ignore them, you need transport. You can’t have health workers that work 20 to 30 miles [away], which is what health workers do. It has to be local, because otherwise it will never last … Anything might happen, so it’s got to be local people who really care about the local circumstances.

In some countries, women still face discriminations and limitations. How do you help empower women through your cause?

We’ve always set a rule that women and men must be trained mechanics. Women and men must be trained as drivers of ambulances and riders of motorcycles. Don’t replicate some of the bad habits of the developed world by making it look as if only men ride motorcycles … or deal with engines.

What we found is very interesting: women motorcyclists are very good. We’ve had instances where men say culturally women can’t ride motorcycles; but once they are trained, they can ride, and everybody sees women as important and it raises their status.

If women are trapped somewhere and they have nowhere to go, either they are trapped with no money or they are trapped by not being able to leave their communities. Mobility is a very important issue and of course economic empowerment, but also raising status, are very important. And self-worth too — all these things are brought about by being able to have a job. There’s so much talk about education for girls and boys. And of course I believe in education. But not everybody’s an academic or a lawyer or a doctor. Some people just want a job — a plumber or a builder or a mechanic. We’re proud of ourselves for training so many women and men to be mechanics.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.