Carmel Valley, Rancho Penasquitos residents help Zambians make a living through ‘Zambikes’
By Joe Tash/Contributor
To a resident of the impoverished Southern African nation of Zambia, owning a bicycle can mean the difference between making a living and destitution.
Since graduating from college in 2007, two young North County men have devoted themselves to providing two-wheeled transportation — and economic opportunity — to thousands of Zambians and people from neighboring African nations.
Dustin McBride, 25, of Carmel Valley and Vaughn Spethmann, 26, of Rancho Penasquitos are the co-founders of Zambikes, a company based near the Zambian capital of Lusaka, which employs Zambians to assemble bicycles, cargo carts and bicycle ambulances. Zambia’s population is about 13 million, and its unemployment rate stands at 60 percent.
The two also launched the Akerfa Foundation, which raises funds to support enterprises such as Zambikes, and other similar programs being planned for African countries.
While based in Zambia, McBride and Spethmann make frequent trips back home to San Diego County, and they recently flew home to spend the holidays with their families. In interviews, they described the impact they hope their enterprises can have.
“We say, we’re not only building bikes but changing lives,” said Spethmann, chief operations officer of the nonprofit foundation.
McBride, who holds the title of Akerfa CEO, said a bicycle can allow a Zambian to haul larger amounts of goods from rural farms to city markets than would be possible on foot. When a bicycle ambulance — a cart with a mattress and canopy — is attached, health workers can move patients more quickly and efficiently to clinics for care.
“A bike over there is like having a truck over here,” McBride said.
The two have set up Zambikes on a 20-acre parcel they purchased in 2007 in the rural outskirts of Lusaka. Over the past three years, they have built a warehouse-like bicycle assembly facility, and outbuildings such as a house where the two live when they are in Zambia.
They helped train Zambians in such skills as bicycle mechanics, painting and welding, and have set up a Zambian management team which they expect will take over operations of Zambikes within the next 18 months. Through the Akerfa foundation, they hope to set up 10 self-sustaining bicycle operations in Zambia and neighboring countries, including Uganda and Kenya.
For the Zambikes operation, McBride and Spethmann found sources of parts in India and China, which are shipped to Zambia for assembly. Since 2007, Zambikes has put more than 7,000 bikes on the road in Zambia, along with some 700 bicycle ambulances, and cargo carts used by budding entrepreneurs.
The foundation, which is based at the Carmel Valley home of McBride’s parents, has raised $1.5 million from private individuals, philanthropic organizations and an annual fall fundraising banquet.
The two met while attending Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles, where both studied international business and played soccer. After freshman year, they went on a school-sponsored mission to Zambia, where they worked in schools and orphanages.
Both were struck by the nation’s poverty, and they began thinking about ways they could help create opportunities in Zambia. They came up with the idea of a bicycle assembly business, and launched it after their graduation from college.
Since then, they have settled into life in a rural African community.
“The power goes out every couple of days right when you want to cook dinner,” said McBride, and Internet access is both slow and very expensive, at $400 U.S. per month for an online connection.
Gradually, they plan to pull back from Zambikes and allow the company to be run by Zambians on a permanent basis.
“That’s my goal, to work myself out of a job,” said McBride.
As the two have imparted lessons on business and stewardship of resources to their Zambian counterparts, they have also learned many lessons.
“We might have the monetary wealth, but they are very relationally wealthy. Relationships and family are very tight. I’ve really learned how to take the time and have a very good depth of relationship, and how to depend on each other and be there for each other,” Spethmann said.
“Even when they have no money, they find a way to take you in and feed you,” he said.
Zambikes has also begun making bamboo bicycle frames for sale in the U.S. and Europe, which generates income for other projects and jobs for Zambian workers. Some 35 workers are employed at the Zambikes facility near Lusaka.
The bamboo bikes sell for about $1,500, support a good cause and give their owners bragging rights, McBride said.
“You’ve got a really cool ride that nobody else in town has.”
McBride’s parents, Marc and Marsha McBride, are supportive of their son’s venture and proud of what he has accomplished, although when they first heard of the plan, they were concerned.
“We didn’t know about Africa other than the horror stories,” said Marc McBride. “We were from a Christian background, this put our faith to the test, we had to let him go with God.”
Both McBride’s and Spethmann’s parents have since visited the Zambikes facility in Lusaka, and Marc McBride sits on the Akerfa board of directors.
“We are totally blessed and blown away by the whole concept and how it’s working,” Marc McBride said. “It’s just warmed our hearts.”
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