merlin matthews is founder and president of Re~Cycle, a U.K.-based nonprofit that collects and ships second-hand bikes and bike parts to developing countries.

Monday, 18 Nov 2002

WEST MERSEA, Essex, U.K.

Today was a bit of a nonstarter, as I was up till some crazy hour, coming tantalizingly close to fixing the wretched computers. Who said there’s an advantage to working from home?

Anyway, to get to our story: Re~Cycle’s work is meant to help the environment and to build a cheap, green transport infrastructure, as well as provide individuals with skills for life. There are millions of bikes lying rusting in garages or being thrown away in the U.K. Meanwhile, in the developing world, a four-hour daily walk is common — whether it is mothers collecting clean water, parents trekking to the farm/factory/market, or children facing a 10-mile walk just to get to school. Re~Cycle’s mission is to rectify these problems by collecting and shipping second-hand bikes and parts to developing countries. We work most frequently in South Africa. Recipients of bikes include school children, women, commuters, game-park wardens, self-help groups …

A Re~Cycle repair workshop in Haiti.

I got into this line of work as a result of becoming Dr. Bike at the London School of Economics, fixing bikes for beers on a Friday evening! I was asked for advice setting up a bike factory in Haiti, and having given up on the city-slicking thing in favor of a little wandering, thought it was a great idea, and I’d wanted to help. I then realized there were lots of bikes in the U.K. that could be easily fixed up, and fortunately found and partnered with a U.S. organization that’d been doing this in Haiti for around 10 years.

That was a big step in getting over the major Catch-22 of getting off the ground, which is “no track record, no funding.” Other lessons I’ve learned:

  • Piggyback on other people’s success (e.g., “We’re working with X, which has been doing this for years …”).
  • Form a team of advisors (X who is expert in subject 1, Y who is an expert in subject 2).
  • Tell funders, “Give us a little money, and we’ll show you …”
  • Get some people to help you –
  • I set up Re~Cycle on my own and it was hard!

Our history so far:

  • Re~Cycle has shipped 7,000 bikes to seven countries on three continents.
  • I won the 1st Upstart Award awarded by the New Statesman and Centrica.
  • Two full-time staff since January (and we’re hiring an operations director soon).
  • Amazing trustees, at last.
  • Totally (if painfully!) sorted and traceable accounts.
  • Nearly $40,000 worth of new spare parts from Halfords (a chain of bike shops).

The Re~Cycle bike barn.

We had a phone call this afternoon from a chap near Wales who’s involved in a community bike project, which has got more bikes than it knows what to do with. There are lots of these groups setting up in the U.K. I advise people to keep very quiet about collecting bikes until they’ve got good storage sorted out.

Re~Cycle is growing to match this supply with the huge demand, though I don’t want it to become too large an organization. Over the next three years, Re~Cycle will set up a network of eight collection points in the U.K. The small head office team will expand, to establish and coordinate the collection points in the U.K. and elsewhere. In addition, it will develop both the educational component of our work and our partnerships, such as those with local councils and national and international groups.

I must take my leave now, as Monday is yoga evening, to keep me (relatively!) sane, strong, and bendy!