Ghanaians hone bicycle know-how in Switzerland
Three bicycle mechanics from Ghana are spending five weeks in Switzerland for business training offered by the charity project Bicycles for Africa (Velos für Afrika).
The Ghanaians have already noted more than a few differences between their countrymen and the Swiss.
The Africans, clad in traditional Swiss mechanic overalls, are hard at work at Gump- und Drahtsel, a Bernese recycling repair shop. They are busy breathing new life into three old bicycles.
Charles Ohemeng is changing the brake cable, Bernadus Tang is installing gears, and Jonas Dompreh is mounting new pedals.
In Ghana, the three are teachers at St Paul's Technical School (SPATS), which has been a Velos für Afrika partner for one year.
The charity fixes old or non-working bicycles and ships them to various African locations.
Today the Ghanaians have an opportunity to see their cargo from the other end, and help load a container bound for their homeland.
"The container, holding about 500 bikes, is taken by truck to Basel, where it will be loaded on a ship bound for Antwerp,“ explains Matthias Maurer of Velos für Afrika.
"After that it goes to Tema, the port for Acca, in Ghana. All in all, the journey takes about six weeks."
Once at SPATS and in the hands of the three teachers and their students, the bikes will likely need further repair work, as they are often damaged during transportation.
Afterwards, they are sold, with the profits being ploughed back into the running of the school.
Dangerous, but healthy
"In Ghana people do ride bicycles, but not as many as here in Switzerland,“ observes Ohemeng, who heads the bicycle repair division at SPATS.
“Here you get the feeling that everyone rides their bikes. “
Bike riding in Ghana is not exactly a piece of cake, he adds.
"There are a lot of cars, and if you don't watch out, you can run into problems."
Ohemeng is convinced, however, that with encouragement and a bit of practice his countrymen could get accustomed to biking.
"When we go back, we're going to try to get more people in our country excited about riding bikes."
The teachers say that the fun side of biking is important, too.
"For us, it's not just about selling bikes. It's more that we want to introduce people to the joys of riding. And it's also better for our health," says Ohemeng.
Healthy as biking may be, it is hard to make a business out of it.
So the Ghanaians are also learning the nuts and bolts of sales, operations, and marketing.
Once back home, they plan to open a showroom where they can display and sell their wares.
Toward that end, they are not just repairing bikes and picking up business pointers in Bern – they are also visiting actual bicycle shops to see how they operate.
Mauer says imparting new skills is one of the main aims of Velos für Afrika.
"It's not just about humanitarian help. We want our partners to learn how to think in terms of economics. They need to be able to calculate the costs and pricing of their bicycles, for example."
For the guests, it was new to see that there are different price categories for bicycles, depending upon quality and extras.
The variety of the Swiss bicycle shops was also surprising.
"We've seen that these shops don't sell just bicycles," said Bernardus Tang.
"They also sell special clothing, helmets, and much more. We want to do the same in our own showroom."
Bicycle sales is an emerging market in Ghana," said Maurer.
But most bikes are ridden by men, added Ohemeng. "You see very few women riding bicycles in Ghana, probably for cultural reasons. “
The technical school would like to change that.
"We're going to try to awaken interest in bicycling among women. To start with, we've organised a competition for women only, with the prize of a bike for the winner."
The school is also ramping up efforts to encourage women to train as bike mechanics.
"We want to get women excited about the technology. We already have two women in our department,” said Ohemeng proudly.
Bikes for the handicapped
Another goal of Velos für Afrika is to promote development of new ideas and special products.
One such idea is the so-called "voiturette", a robust, three- wheeled apparatus designed for people who cannot walk.
Riders sit on a seat, not a saddle, and power the vehicle with their hands instead of their feet.
A prototype is currently being developed in Switzerland.
Michel Ducommum of Velos für Afrika,says, "We expect the voiturette to be produced in Africa from 2011.“
"Either the engineers will go to Ghana and teach locals to build them, or two or three people will come back to Switzerland and learn how to build them here. “
Velos für Afrika
The charity project was founded in 1993 and is supported by a number of prominent Swiss.
The recycling workshop Gump- und Drahtesel, along with other enterprises, collects bicycles no longer in use throughout Switzerland for export. After being repaired, they are shipped to Africa.
The bicycle repairs are made by jobless or people in precarious social or health situations.
The project aims to create training and production centres in African partner countries.
The bicycles are shipped to Ghana, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Gambia.
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