Paolo Richter Velafrica
Text: Vanessa Georgoulas/Images: Marc Wetli, Velafrica

Africa steps on the pedals

Once upon a time, Paolo Richter’s bike was stolen. So he cobbled together a “new” one out of parts from old two-wheelers. That’s how the founder of Velafrica discovered his passion, which he turned into a project, which today has improved the quality of life for close to half a million people in Africa.

“A bicycle in Africa is an important investment.”

Mr Richter, what is Velafrica and how did the original idea for it come about?

Let’s say it was a kind of collision between my acquired passion for bike recycling and the unusually high Swiss unemployment rate back in the early 1990s. During my studies, I got into bicycle resurrection because somebody “borrowed” my bike, as Captain Jack Sparrow would say. So I bought three other ones at auction – themselves probably “borrowed” as well – for four francs apiece and out of their components I concocted a new bike. Already back then I was working with jobless people, and together we started to refurbish bicycles. During a field research stay in Ghana, I quickly recognised that far and wide hardly any bikes were to be seen, and it was mainly the women and kids who had to walk hours on end each day to get to the nearest market, water source or school. During a visit, my Ghanaian friend Mozato Ohene-Akonor remarked: These bikes are precisely what we need. And so we started selling our restored bicycles in Africa at a very affordable price.

How large is the Velafrica organisation and how is the programme financed?

In total, roughly 350 people are involved – including the jobless or handicapped programme participants at our 30 partner repair shops in Switzerland. We have something like 65 related jobs in Africa and close to 50 African bicycle dealerships. Donations cover roughly one-third of our financing needs; another third comes from sales of our bikes in Switzerland, and our partners take care of the rest through contributions towards expenses.

Velafrica conducts local courses to train bicycle mechanics. In which countries are they held?

In Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Madagascar and Ghana. On the whole, there are about 80 courses ranging from a two-year apprenticeship to a two-week advanced training seminar. We also educate women.

How do you go about getting a new project on its feet?

We first scrutinise the existing market, as it is by no means our desire to pose new competition. That’s also the reason we don’t give away the bikes for free. And then there are specific regions which can hardly be supplied – Congo or Mali, for example. The political situation there is just too unstable.

What role does Velafrica play in African society?

A bicycle opens the door to a lot of things. Two separate studies by the University of St. Gallen reveal that a bike enables you to get from Point A to Point B 4–5 times faster and transport 3–4 times more goods than on foot. A schoolchild needs an average of 2.5 hours to get to and from school each day. With a two-wheeler, they can handle those 7 kilometres back-and-forth much quicker and therefore have more time for doing their homework – hopefully. Also thanks to bikes, more girls go to school because they feel safer during the journey.

What are the greatest challenges to doing business in Africa?

Baseline poverty levels see to it that currency exchange fluctuations or a bad harvest have a serious impact on purchasing power. In Africa, a bicycle is a big-time investment – depending on the given country, the price can vary between the equivalent of 40 and 90 Swiss francs. A buyer has to save for several months to come up with that amount.

And how difficult are dealings on a day-to-day basis?

You need to know the economic background of cultural differences there. If someone shows up a bit late, that’s not necessarily a sign of insouciance. Rather, it might be explainable by the fight for survival. If your cooking stove goes on the blink, repairing it has priority – elsewise there’ll be nothing warm to eat until that happens. But there’s also something relaxing about living without a clock.

Is that precisely what we can learn most from Africa – more hakuna matata?

That’s one thing, for sure: staying unruffled and upbeat even when things aren’t running optimally. I marvel at this courage to face twists and turns in life and the creativity it takes to find a way regardless of the circumstances – while keeping a stiff upper lip in the process.

And what can Africa learn from Switzerland?

We’ve got a higher degree of quality consciousness and also loftier expectations – precision and due care play a major role in this regard. The Swiss are also among the exemplars when it comes to customer orientation.

“A bicycle expands the radius of movement, saves time and makes work easier.”

How can you make sure that the relationships with your African partners stay on an even keel?

We communicate with them on a par and listen carefully because we view our partners as the market cognoscenti. We’ve got plenty of ideas and concepts, but ultimately it’s those people who know the lie of the land.

Velafrica – opportunities thanks to a pair of wheels

It was more than 20 years ago that the first container with 300 decommissioned bicycles left Switzer­land en route to Ghana. 130,000 more have followed since 1993, headed to partners in Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana, Mada­gas­car and Tanzania. In Switzer­land, this charitable organisation works together with welfare institutions that engage the jobless as well as people with health and physical impairments. Velafrica founder and general manager Paolo Richter studied social sciences and social work in Fribourg.