Pikilily Workshop: Helping motorcyclists in Africa
After swapping England for Tanzania, Claire Elsdon is working to help the people who need it the most by refurbishing bikes – with a difference…
Words: Robert Drane and Mike Waters
Claire Elsdon was a stockbroker stuck in a city job, and you’ve probably already guessed how she felt about it. She took the same grinding London commute every day for seven years to sit at a desk in an air-conditioned cocoon, working stupid hours at a computer under soulless fluorescent lights. But, when her elderly grandmother had a sudden fall, Claire felt prompted to take a look at her own life. “My grandmother said to me:
‘When I was your age, I wish I’d done the things that I wanted to do – not the things that other people expected me to do. I wish I’d been brave’,” she says. It’s easy to see why this left an impression. That conversation was enough to kick-start Claire’s mind, as she realised there was nothing scarier than growing old without having achieved what she wanted.
Claire quit her job and decided to do something more interesting instead. She bought a Suzuki DR-Z400 and rode from London to Cape Town, alone, to try and reconnect with the world. Living by the spur of the moment, she had no idea at that time that she would find a new life working with charities and businesses to help save lives, eventually founding the ambitious Pikilily motorcycle workshop in Tanzania.
Claire's African adventure
Claire’s unorthodox adventure was packed with many once-in-a-lifetime experiences – many great, some not so great. Seeing Africa for herself and finding the truth behind the headlines was something she enjoyed; amoebic dysentery, less so.
She was particularly touched by the many small acts of kindness villagers showed her as she journeyed through the middle of nowhere. In order to offer something in return, Claire wanted to help out on a charitable project in the area and applying her finance skills seemed obvious. She contacted an organisation and they told Claire just how much it would mean to the local village women that she had ridden so far alone to help them. In the moments when her ride became tough, it was the thought of them that kept her from giving up.
When she finally arrived – a little battered and bruised from 27,000km of riding in tough terrain – she met with a microfinance organisation. Fortunately, their key focus was using motorcycles to reach people in villages who couldn’t come to them – something Claire was perfectly suited for. “I didn’t even know they were running 80 motorbikes!” she says, happily. “It was a complete fluke!”
The organisation was grappling with serious problems. Their bikes were continuously breaking down and the repair costs were soaring – enough for them to question whether using bikes was a sustainable option.
“They said: ‘We really need someone to help us with these bikes.’ I hadn’t ever been asked to troubleshoot a situation like that before, and I thought ‘Crikey, I don’t know if I can help, maybe it’s something really complicated’. However, I’d travelled all this way on one motorbike and hadn’t had a breakdown or puncture and was still using the same chain and sprockets. These guys weren’t even getting a month out of a chain and sprocket and were having breakdowns all the time. I realised it’s a matter of training and of procuring the right quality spare parts. They were motivated to listen, because they were fed up of being stuck in all sorts of places.”
With the organisation’s Procurement Manager persuaded to invest in proper spares instead of the false economy of only using the cheapest stuff, reliability improved and Claire was in her element. “I kind of thought ‘You know what? This actually works.’ It’s not me trying to force something down someone’s throat. There’s interest in this, and it can make a difference.” she says, and she’s earned the pride in her voice.
Motorcycles and midwives
Someone heard about Claire’s experience and invited her to visit Tanzania to help with a maternal health project. It’s a good cause; the Tanzanian maternal mortality rate is among the worst in the world and accounts for 18% of all deaths for women aged 15-49.
A major reason why this death rate is so high is a widespread lack of healthcare for women in labour, which is especially serious in remote villages. One of the most straightforward solutions is to get medical attention to the women where they live.
The response was founding a flying team of midwives who would ride out to villages on motorbikes, meaning trained staff would be right there with the women in labour in case of emergency. They could also regularly visit areas to promote health messages, carry out medical checks and run antenatal clinics in the villages.
That meant the bikes needed to be in working order and the midwives themselves would need to know how to deal with riding in harsh conditions. Without a critical mass of training, maintenance, availability of spare parts and all the things we take for granted, the midwives would have no way of learning how to ride safely – or, for that matter, anything to ride at all.
Bringing maintenance to Tanzania
As she spent time in Tanzania, Claire quickly realised that the problem of motorcycle maintenance was bigger than it first appeared. The condition of bikes all over the country was dire, many in dangerous states of repair. She began to realise that no one really teaches motorcycle maintenance or trains anyone to ride a bike in Tanzania. It probably goes without saying that the consequences can be lethally unforgiving. Hospitals are inundated with casualties, to the point that specific ‘motorcycle wards’ exist just for wounded bikers.
“Most bikes are small – about 125cc – generally Chinese bikes and really bad quality,” she explains. “That’s just really frustrating. They don’t last, the frames do really strange things, the bearings don’t last long.
“It really struck me how many bikes were in such terrible states. It was causing a real human cost because it was causing deaths for fathers and, in some cases, mothers. This would then impact children because, if you lose an income-generating parent, the chances of being able to make it through school go through the floor.
“Because it’s only been legal to drive a motorbike as a taxi since 2010, the colleges haven’t caught up. There’s still no motorbike-specific maintenance course. Nobody has been trained to a college standard in how to look after motorbikes and very few people can afford a proper toolkit.”
This has led to a situation where people are taught at the side of the road if at all, using bodge fixes because the correct parts and tools simply aren’t available. As Claire puts it: “You’re probably going to end up with things screwdrivered off and where they should be using some kind of specific seal or head gaskets they’re probably using some kind of silicone for a bathroom or chewing gum. They have no choice but to bodge.”
As a direct result, this meant a shortage of operational bikes and a shortage of trained bikers – both of which were a major problem when it came to getting the midwives on bikes.
The motorcycling entrepreneur
Perhaps it’s Claire’s background in finance or her determined nature that drove her to devise a solution. “You look at that and think that’s a problem which is fixable, I’ve got some skills here that I could share and I care enough to do that,” as she puts it.
Seeing that maintenance was the root of the problem, she co-founded Pikilily, set up a workshop and began servicing motorcycles. The name Pikilily comes from merging the word ‘piki piki’ (motorcycle in Kiswahili) with lily – the traditional flower of femininity and partnership.
At first the aim was to simply service Tanzania’s thousands of motorcycle taxis, making the bikes safer to reduce the number of accidents and reduce the number of deaths and injuries on the country’s roads. At the same time, educating people on the importance of maintenance is core to the beliefs of Pikilily and Claire has gone one step further by creating opportunities for women who might not otherwise have the chance to learn. Pikilily’s apprenticeship scheme welcomes local women who are interested in learning to ride and maintain motorcycles, with consequences that extend far beyond just the women themselves.
“Those women will probably reinvest back in their families,” Claire explains. “If a woman is empowered to earn more money through whatever means, they really invest that back into things such as making sure their kids go to school. That makes a huge difference.
“We’ve only got female apprentices, but we do have men in the workshop. We’re not trying to set up a project that’s somehow against men; this is about trying to create some equality of opportunity and just working with the community as a whole.”
Hearing about the success of the Pikilily workshop, the nearby district of Sengerema asked Claire if she could help on a project of their own.
The whole area has only one conventional ambulance to serve about 700,000 people. To help improve this balance and travel to outside villages, about five years ago the Tanzanian government purchased an unusual alternative – motorcycle ambulances.
A convenient and relatively inexpensive way to transport patients to hospital, these motorcycle ambulances are designed by a British engineer and manufactured in South Africa. They have a sidecar – which doubles as a stretcher – they have ana all-weather cover and are designed to deal with the notorious roads found in the remotest of African villages.
The Tanzanian government originally purchased about 400 motorcycle ambulances to be used throughout the country. However, Claire says there was a catch: “Unfortunately, the bikes got disseminated across the regions and districts without a coherent plan to manage and maintain them.
“All the bikes that I’ve found so far have only done about 1,000km in five years. They’re usually sitting under a tree, rotting. It’s awful. They stop working because there wasn’t enough fuel or they got a flat tyre – the silliest of reasons.”
Claire’s responsibility was to refurbish the broken motorcycle ambulances, then train new riders on the best way to ride them off-road for responding to emergencies. Mostly run by the same team behind the Pikilily workshop, they are hard at work training others to a high enough level that they can deal with the roughest of roads themselves.
“The riders they were using before weren’t dedicated. They were just local guys who used to ride motorbike taxis around town and they had no specific knowledge of how to ride a motorbike and a sidecar. They didn’t necessarily have any of their training evaluated. They would just get on a bike and ride it out, and there was no oversight of that at all.
“We wanted to get dedicated riders whose full-time job is to be on standby with these bikes, to maintain them and ride them. They will be trained in every aspect, so the standard should be very high and we should have minimal breakdowns. We’re trying to prove that once you actually look after these bikes and maintain them, the running cost should be very low and they should be able to make a lot of callouts in a very reliable way.”
Continuing the feminine theme of Pikilily, Claire is training a team of women to be these dedicated riders. She explains that this was a deliberate and well thought-out choice, particularly when it comes to supporting pregnant women in remote villages and reducing the area’s maternal mortality rate. “I think it’s going to be more comforting and reassuring for another woman to be going to make that journey,” Claire explains. “She’ll probably have a bit of a better understanding about what kind of discomfort that woman’s going through and probably then drive with a bit more consideration of that fact!”
“We provide a lot of training. There’s learning to ride a motorbike, learning to maintain it, off-road skills, First Aid skills with the Red Cross and also self defence because they’ll be riding out at night and we want to be absolutely sure they’re equipped to deal with anything that might happen. It’s a great opportunity.”
The Pikilily Workshop: Looking to the future
It’s clear that Pikilily’s refurbished motorcycle ambulances and trained mechanics are just as desperately needed as the team of motorcycling midwives. But what does the future hold for the workshop?
“There are these 400 motorbike ambulances all over the country and our ultimate goal is to renovate and run all of them, so we are going to need some infrastructure to support that.” Claire explains. “I think we would really prefer to make sure we’ve got up to full strength where we are now in Mwanza first and then open up somewhere else and build that up from scratch as well.”
These hopes of expansion are well-founded and Pikilily’s efforts have already become very popular. “We’ve had interest from all kinds of groups. In just the last few weeks, we’ve had three or four groups come to us saying they’re just starting a project in town. One said they’re starting a new solar project and they’re going to have seven bikes, but within the year they want 70. They want to take out a servicing contract with us so the bikes are maintained properly, but also they want their riders to go through our school.
“We really take pride in what we do. People feel glad if they can sustain themselves.”
To find out more about Pikilily, please visit pikilily.com.
This feature was first published in the Autumn 2017 issue of Motorcycle Rider - the BMF members' magazine. Find out about more great benefits of becoming a BMF member here.