Awards 1998 Special Commendation

Special Commendation

Riders for Health

Motorcyclists have a tough, biker image. But they also provide the backing, in money and support, for an unusually successful overseas development enterprise, Riders for Health.

Motorcycles are ideal for getting about in rural Africa; but when aid agencies sent them there, they usually broke down or crashed. Riders for Health has changed that. It has devised a system, operated by Africans, that can keep the bikes on the road. Ghana's, Lesotho's and Zimbabwe's health workers can get regularly into the villages. It makes a big difference to rural morale as well as the health of the nations.

It all happened by chance. American motorcycle racer Randy Mamola wanted to give some money away; and, since he loves children, embarked with his manager Andrea Coleman on raising cash for the Save the Children Fund. In 1988 SCF suggested he went to see what happened to the money. So he travelled to Somalia with Barry Coleman, a motorcycle enthusiast and former Guardian journalist who had campaigned for safer motorcycle racing.

They found a lot of broken-down motorcycles, some of which needed only a clean air filter or a tighter chain to get them back on the road. Back in Britain, SCF said they were giving up on motorcycles because they were completely useless. A World Health Organisation official, however, said that WHO couldn't complete its immunisation programme in Africa without motorcycles.

Barry Coleman's next journey was to The Gambia where the Ministry of Health said it had 80 motorcycles. In the western region he found none, in the central the remains of one. But, in the east, 12 were still up and running even though they were city bikes unsuitable for rural Africa. The reason was that Ali Ceesay, the health director's driver, was working on the community nurses' bikes when they attended meetings. So motorcycles don't need to break down in Africa. They need to be well managed. Avoiding breakdowns is vital, because recovery and repair are simply too expensive.

Randy Mamola and Andrea Coleman continue raising money and have brought in other leading racers including the Australian world 500cc champion Michael Doohan and the Italian Max Biaggi. Riders for Health has been independent from the Save the Children Fund since 1996.

Barry Coleman first tested his ideas in Uganda and then, in 1991, started a programme from scratch for the ministry of health in Lesotho. The idea was, first, to train trainers who would teach people how to ride properly and look after their machines; second, to train a manager who would see that machines got serviced when necessary. For this, Barry found an outstanding candidate, an environmental health assistant called Mohale Moshoeshoe, now Riders for Health's director for Southern Africa. In the seven years since, none of the health ministry bikes in Lesotho has broken down.

Barry sees this as specially important for African morale. Every breakdown suggests to Africans that they are not much good with motor vehicles. To run a breakdown-free service is to show this isn't true. He insists that Africans do the managing, take the decisions and get the credit. Any Europeans are simply advisers. After Lesotho, came Ghana where the health ministry had 600 motorcycles as against Lesotho's 47. Once again, Riders for Health assembled a body of local people who could be enthused about motorcycles. Barry Coleman sees this as a better way of effecting change than bending the ears of top officials with other things to think about.

Ghana raised two new considerations. First, a health ministry's job is to promote health, not run motorcycles, which would be better done by a separate organisation. Second, what happens when the motorcycles need replacing? The aid agencies which provided them in the first place are unpredictable. They may have other uses for their money when a second lot is needed.

Riders for Health addressed both these points when, with help from British aid, it set up in April 1998 a nationwide organisation in Zimbabwe headed by a local man Alfred Gonga to run 55 motorcycles given by Denmark. The maintenance technicians will earn some of their pay from private business. The system will allow expansion to include thousands of machines.

Zimbabwe's Central Mechanical Equipment Department has a system of charging for the use of vehicles but struggles with the cost of constantly repairing them. RfH took up the idea of charging so much per kilometre, as a way of financing replacements. Its zero-breakdown approach eliminates the expense of repairs through preventive maintenance. RfH uses a computer programme to monitor costs. It is also testing a versatile sidecar designed by a Borehamwood man, Mike Norman, which can be used to generate electricity and pump water as well as take people to hospital.

RfH's senior field support officer, Mike Gatton, has useful previous experience in contract hire. Back in 1991, he rode the length of Africa to join the Lesotho scheme.

The Zimbabwe operation includes four-wheeled vehicles. Barry Coleman believes that, like motorcycles, these do not have to break down. Four-wheeled vehicles, along with 800 motorcycles, figure in a WHO scheme for eradicating polio from Nigeria. RfH is now advising WHO on how they can best be run.