Expert Voices

Why Motorcycles are Critical to Health in Rural Africa (Op-Ed)

South African children posing. Great trekking December 15, 2005 in South Africa.
Child deaths in some places like sub-Sahara Africa may be underestimated because of high HIV infection rates, meaning the mother herself may have died, suggests research reported Aug. 28, 2012. (Image credit: urosr, Shutterstock)

Andrea Coleman is chief executive officer and co-founder of Riders For Health. This article is adapted from an article for the Skoll World Forum published in Partnership with Forbes. The author contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The motorcycle. Even though from an early age I was fascinated by the engineering, it has always meant fun and freedom. That is until 25 years ago, when my husband Barry and I started Riders for Health.

Barry had always had a similar interest in the incredibly perfect technology that is the motorcycle and its engine. And we founded Riders for Health to concentrate on the efficient running of this technology to deliver health care to millions of people living in communities in rural Africa.

Rural Africa — where roads, service stations and gas pumps do not exist. From the moment we saw the need, and how the motorcycle could address it, its meaning changed for me. Now it is a lifeline. A life-saver that fills a gaping hole in global health that has long been neglected — with tragic results.

We started Riders for Health because someone had to. The sight of bikes in Africa broken and rusting behind health centers simply because no one had been trained in vehicle maintenance; the tales of health workers desperately frustrated because they knew people needed their help but they just couldn't reach them; the cost in money and in lives.

Like all social entrepreneurs, we have doggedly pursued our goal to make sure that healthcare gets to people wherever they are, no matter how hard it is to reach them. And a quarter of a century is a long time to doggedly pursue anything.

But, we have learned that what we do is as valuable today at it was in 1988. If anything, it is even more important now, because the developments in science and the work done to lower the cost of drugs means they should be available to all. But if these drugs and vaccines don't reach those who need them, it doesn't matter how cheap they are.

Which is why we have been thinking again about how we communicate what change we want to see in the world and how we are working to bring it about.

We looked at the fundamentals of why we were driven to start Riders over 20 years ago. We were motorcyclists, not experts in development, but we were angry and thought it unreasonable that people in rural communities in the developing world did not receive the healthcare they needed, simply because of lack of infrastructure and technical knowledge.

We were constantly told that what we were doing was not possible, but we were not daunted simply because no one had challenged the situation before nor because we had no money. We believed then, and believe to this day, that healthcare should reach everyone, everywhere. And that drove us on.

On August 29, we did something that may seem a long way from healthcare initiatives in Africa. We were at a motorcycle race in the heart of England — the British round of MotoGP, the biggest motorcycle racing championship in the world. We put on our annual Day of Champions event, a day of fundraising that we first ran 20 years ago to raise funds to set up Riders for Health.

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At the event, people came and bought tickets for the chance to see their heroes, and they bid thousands of pounds for signed pieces of motorcycle-racing history. We put on Day of Champions, and events like it all around the world with MotoGP, to earn money for our programs.

As our work has developed, we have created cost-recovery models that are designed to make our programs sustainable. In our programs, like the ones in Lesotho and the Gambia, we have shown what can be achieved when we do this, and our other programs are progressing towards financial sustainability. But it is the support that we receive from motorcyclists around the world that makes what we do possible.

By managing vehicles properly, by maintaining them regularly and predictably, and by using the right vehicle for the right terrain, there is no reason why every community could not be regularly and reliably reached by a health worker.

Yes this costs money, but the truth is that not doing it costs far more. A broken vehicle costs money, either to replace or repair. And if you do neither it means that health workers are not efficient, and most importantly, it means people go without healthcare.

But because transport is "invisible" it is easy to ignore. If there are no drugs at a clinic the answer is, usually, "buy more drugs." No health worker in a village? We need to train more health workers.

Few people are willing to accept that if you invest in transport the drugs might make it from the warehouse to the clinic. And if she had a motorcycle that worked, the health worker in the local clinic could see five times as many people because she would no longer have to walk, carrying all her equipment with her.

Keeping vehicles running is not free. Nothing is. And budgets for ministries of health are tight. But it is not free to look after vehicles properly in the developed world either, yet we do it without thinking because we know the cost of the system grinding to a halt is just too high.

When, in 2000, fuel protests in the UK caused a shortage of petrol at the pumps, and began affecting the supply of food on the shelves and causing the health service to begin canceling non-emergency treatment, the government was even prepared to use the military to make sure fuel reached essential services, like ambulances and fire fighters.

Transport is just as essential in the developing world. It is time it was treated like it.

The money we continue to earn from events like Day of Champions is vital to helping support what we do, but to make our programs possible and sustainable we need ministries of health and their funders to take responsibility and fund the running of effective transport. Only then will health care reach everyone, everywhere.

This article originally appeared as In Rural Africa, Motorcycles Aren't Just Fun, They Are a Lifeline for Millions on the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, a premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world's most pressing social issues.The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.