A bicycle made for two or more

Observations on transport

The first things I noticed, stepping out of the dusty brick building that amounts to a regional airport terminal in the north-west of Tanzania, were the bicycles. As a London cyclist, I'm used to being in a minority on roads packed with cars, taxis, buses and trucks. So the rural town of Tabora was a wondrous sight.

On my first day, apart from a handful of rusting taxis and our mandatory aid agency Land Rover (I was working with WaterAid), bikes were the only transport around. Along the town's main roads, a continuous column of cyclists flowed from sunrise until well into nightfall. On almost every corner, teenagers with hands and faces smeared in bike-grease laid out grubby sheets on the gravel, where they fixed chains and repaired punctures in exchange for a few Tanzanian shillings.

Bikes carried one, two or more people at a time. One day, I saw a whole family riding on one cycle: mum gracefully side-saddle on the rear rack, a baby cradled behind and a toddler on her knees, while another youngster rode the crossbar and dad happily pedalled away.

Apart from walking, bicycles are the most popular form of transport in Africa, and their use appears to be growing. A new bicycle factory opened in November on the outskirts of Tanzania's second city, Dar es Salaam, and is already producing 400 cycles a day.

In rural Tanzania, bikes are a lifeline. The rear rack on every other bike was stacked high with sacks of rice, ripe cucumbers and okra, and piles of firewood or charcoal. Some had baskets packed with live chickens strapped to them. Others had full water barrels hanging across racks on the back and the front.

I met 15-year-old Katherine John as she was collecting water for her family from a shallow hole a 30-minute cycle ride from home. "I come here four times each day, with two drums of 20 litres and one of ten litres, and I take them back on my bicycle," she said. If the bike breaks, Katherine told me, it has to be repaired right away. Otherwise the whole family has no water for drinking, cooking or washing.

Development organisations promote the bicycle as a means of helping the rural poor in developing countries. For example, Re-Cycle, a charity and social business that won a New Statesman Upstarts Award in 2001, renovates unwanted bicycles from the UK and ships them abroad. The Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), which promotes simple, low-impact technology in developing countries, has produced designs for strong but cheap racks, carrying boxes and trailers for use on bikes. "Bicycles are one of the most cost-effective forms of transport for people living in the developing world," said ITDG's Theo Schilderman. "They are cheap to run, easy to repair and last for years. Thanks to the bicycle, farmers, carpenters and small-scale market traders can get their goods to markets and local mechanics can earn a living repairing them."

Returning to cycling in fume-filled London, among cars taking one person around town and transit vans carrying light packages between offices - all contributing yet further to global warming - I wondered if rural Tanzania had given me a glimpse of a better future.

The New Statesman/Co-operative Bank Upstarts Awards 2004, rewarding social enterprise, are taking nominations now at www.upstarts.org.uk