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Pedaling for progress with cargo bikes

August 12, 2013 9:06pm
For Victoria Holanda, fetching water used to be a backbreaking chore. “Dati ay suson naming mag-asawa ang isang kawayan; ang timba ay nasa gitna naming dalawa,” she recalled. “Inaabot kami ng tatlong oras araw-araw sa pag-igib ng tubig mula sa isang bukal na 500 metro ang layo sa bahay namin.”

Poor access to potable water is just one of the problems plaguing Holanda and her neighbors in Barangay Madulao in Catanauan, Quezon province. Many of them farm or fish; they barely make ends meet. They can hardly afford the costs of getting themselves and their goods from point A to point B. And child labor prevails in the community: 166 children engage in work that deprives them of their childhood and their dignity.

How do you solve the intertwined problems of a poor community such as Barangay Madulao? A development agency would usually launch a livelihood program to create jobs. But JP Alipio and Danielle Guillen put their heads together and had a brain wave: to create what is probably the first community-owned and -managed cargo bicycle rental system in the Philippines.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) chose Barangay Madulao to be the site of a facility that would turn agricultural waste into charcoal. Alipio, field coordinator of ILO’s Bondoc Local Economic Development Program, thought of including the use of cargo bicycles in the program. He got in touch with Guillen, manager of the Inclusive Mobility project implemented by the Innovation at the Base of the Pyramid in Southeast Asia Program at the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG).

“Mobility is not something we really look at in the world of development work,” said Alipio. “You put down the livelihood program, but you don’t help people get the product from the house to the market.”

Alipio thought cargo bicycles, wheeled beasts of burden, would do the trick. They are a common sight in the Philippines, in many towns such as Catanauan, where they are used to fetch water and peddle goods, such as bread, eggs, and snacks. They are easy to ride and to maintain. Best of all, cargo bikes are human-powered and need no fuel.

Guillen, an urban planner, was intrigued by Alipio’s idea. The cargo bicycle is slow. It’s heavy. But it just might transform the lives of the poor in Barangay Madulao.

The residents of Catanauan lack convenient and affordable transportation. Walking and animal-driven transport are the usual modes of transport; tricycles and jeeps ply the highways and major roads; few access roads connect vast farmlands. Passengers endure hour-long delays as tricycles and jeeps leave only when they are full. The costs of transporting goods, people, and services are too high for households earning a per-capita income of less than $1 per day.

Guillen wondered, “The Inclusive Mobility project sought to promote mobility for all, by all, from all in Metro Manila. How would it work in a rural setting like Barangay Madulao?”

With funding from ILO, she and her team sought the answer to this question from March to June 2013. They researched the transportation modes in Catanauan and identified issues and opportunities. They helped revive the CLPA, the people’s organization that would design, run, and own the cargo bicycle rental business. (CLPA used to stand for Child Laborers Parents Association. It is now being changed to Catanauan Laborers Parents Association.) They market-tested the business with 10 cargo bicycles and evaluated its potential.

Here’s what they found out.

The downside

The business model is still at its infancy stage; it has to be further incubated before it becomes a successful venture.

From May 9 to June 12, the project showed income losses of P1,375. The main reasons for the lost earnings: improper recordkeeping and bicycle repairs.

“Mahirap kunin ang kooperasyon ng mga miyembro sa paggamit ng bisikleta at pagpapatakbo ng project,” said Alodia Rey, the project’s field researcher.

For example, everyone had agreed that the bicycles should be returned in good working order. The bicycle custodian would ensure that they were clean and whole. If anything was broken, the person renting the bicycle should pay for the repairs. However, due to poor recordkeeping and lack of diligent inspections, these rules were not followed.

Rey reminded CLPA members that broken bicycles could not be rented out; therefore, they could not earn money for the group. “Mahalin ninyo ‘yung mga bisikleta, ‘yung pinagkakakitaan, at hindi lang ang kita.”

She said that when the CLPA has saved enough money, the members could take out loans at low interest rates. They can then invest the sum in their small farms and businesses.

Another downside: children have been seen riding the cargo bicycles.

This is unacceptable, said Cristy Tagacay, vice president of CLPA. “Ang gusto nating mabawasan dito ay child labor tapos bata rin ang gumagamit sa bike. Dapat ay mga magulang o ‘yung nasa legal age ang gagamit,” she said.

The upside

The project is a business model that the community is running, and it makes money for the community.

Guillen is optimistic that ASoG has in three months “facilitated the creation of the CLPA and fuelled a community process and business model that the community can adapt.”

Alipio agrees. “That business model is one of the biggest successes of this project,” he said. “It’s a social enterprise that provides a service for the poorest of the poor.”

He noted that a social enterprise tends to make a product for other people to buy; however, the makers of the product usually cannot afford it. In contrast, the cargo bicycle rental business fulfills the need of the poor for transport and at a price that is within their reach.

And the business can be profitable. From May 9 to June 12, it earned gross revenues of P3,925.

It is also possible to produce a heavy-duty cargo bicycle in the Philippines for about $200.

In other countries, the cost of a cargo bicycle ranges from $500 to $3,000. Guillen believes the manufacture of cargo bicycles in the country has much potential. “It can contribute to local development by providing employment and boosting economic activity,” she said.

Using the cargo bicycles eases the community’s access to water and saves time and money.

CLPA’s records show that the main purpose of 69 percent of the trips undertaken from May 9 to June 12 was to transport water from the source to the households.

The average monthly income of the people who rent the cargo bikes range from P700 to P5,000. Transport accounts for an average of 15 percent of their monthly incomes. The cargo bikes allow users to go to many destinations at a fixed price.

Holanda uses the bike to bring her three children to and from school. It has made their travel time more predictable and cheaper. They used to wait as long as an hour for the tricycle to fill up before it leaves, and they used to spend P44 a day in fares.

The cargo bicycle has boosted Holanda's productivity. She uses it to fetch water—and it now takes her an hour a day, instead of the usual three, to complete the task even all by herself. She has time to peddle snacks by bicycle and earns P300 on a good day. — BM, GMA News

Full disclosure: Dinna Louise C. Dayao was the communication consultant of the Inclusive Mobility project until September 30, 2012. Alipio emailed her his idea to include the use of cargo bicycles in the charcoal briquet project in October 2012. She forwarded his message to Guillen. Alipio and Guillen decided to work together on the cargo bicycle rental business in Barangay Madulao.

Alipio is one of the founders of Pedala Bike Messengers, one of five runners-up in the Inclusive Mobility Challenge.

On June 20, ILO and ASoG turned over 10 more cargo bicycles to the CLPA. The group now has 20 bikes to rent to its members and to the rest of the community. On that day, CLPA members agreed to distribute the bicycles in different areas in Barangay Madulao to expand the market base.
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