Dan Austin may be co-founder of Austin-Lehman Adventures, a venerable international adventure travel company, but he’s even prouder of the way he’s helped improve daily life for villagers in Namibia.
It all started in 2010 when Austin tried to decide what to do with a fleet of 120 mountain bikes headed for retirement. Not wanting to toss them into the ever-growing landfill, he began researching bike organizations that might be able to use them. That’s when he happened upon Bicycles for Humanity, an Australian organization that had been collecting and shipping bikes since 2008.
Austin began collecting even more bicycles and soon had well over 400 two-wheelers ready to be shipped 9,000 miles from his Billings, Montana, headquarters to Ngoma, Namibia. By the summer of 2010, Austin and his son, Andy, traveled to Namibia to greet the 40-foot-long container and watch as it was transformed into a working bike shop, complete with doors, windows and an awning.
In rural Namibia, a bike can be a life-changer.
“Bicycles are so important because the distances are far,” Austin says. “Children might walk five to seven kilometers to school. With a bike, they can get there in a fourth of the time.”
Add a bike to a household and more girls will graduate from high school, Austin says. A villager who hops on a bike can reach the water supply (often five kilometers away) far more quickly than on foot, AIDS home healthcare workers can get to patients faster and bikes can even be used as makeshift ambulances.
Seeing firsthand the impact these bikes had on villagers, Austin was hooked. So, in 2011, he joined forces with Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN), another non-profit in Namibia, to create Wheels of Change (wocinternational.org), a chapter-based organization that donates 100 percent of its proceeds to those in need.
The income from these bike shops, which offer bikes as well as tools and spare parts, goes back to the community to do everything from helping fund other small businesses to paying school fees for those families that can’t afford it. Providing jobs also prompts confidence and Austin has begun to teach villagers how to lead bike tours for tourists, too.
“Many of our workers have never had a job before,” Austin says. “Our newest shop is managed by six women, all of whom have become bike mechanics and salespeople. They’ve found a way to have a sustainable income long-term.”
Wheels of Change has shipped 10,000 bikes to Namibia to date. For Austin, sending bikes to Africa is pretty much the best part of his day. “Everybody has to figure out how to give back and I’m proud that every dime we collect, every bike we ship, we’re giving people the opportunity to have a business to fend for themselves. This has become personal to me.”