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?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

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.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

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.

Grist relies on the support of generous readers like you. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations matched!

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!

Tuesday, 19 Nov 2002

WEST MERSEA, Essex, U.K.

Hello again! The Royal Mail is our greatest source of bikes, in both number and quality, giving us 3,000 load-carrying bikes per year. The bikes used to be chopped in half and thrown away, after seven years of being looked after by a full-time mechanic — they are now an extremely effective example of Re-Cycling.

Royal Mail bikes get a new lease on life in South Africa.

It took 1.5 years of begging and groveling to convince the Royal Mail to give us the bikes; the organization has been very worried about liability issues, because it designed the bikes. Persistence … Royal Mail is an example of an organization where the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, due to the size of it. It is still chucking some good stuff out, so we keep at it, patiently, as the bikes are superb! The local prison is going to refurbish some of the Postie’s old bikes, tying in with our goal of increasing our number of U.K. beneficiaries.

Re~Cycle also receives bikes from individuals. We ask for a donation with each bike toward shipping, on the recommendation of one of our U.S. partners, Pedals for Progress, in New Jersey. Since many of you are in the U.S., let me list some other bike development groups:

On the money front, we try to get lots of types of contributions stacked up, so no single party has to bear the full cost. Those kicking in contributions include:

  • person who gives the bike
  • local rotary, etc.
  • U.K. trusts
  • South African government, with a per bike subsidy
  • South African trusts and companies
  • the end user

Overall, our funding should be okay, because we hit lots of issues (women, youth, environment) and because the concept of what we’re doing is easy to grasp. We do have a bit of a cash flow situation at the moment, however; one needs to keep applying for money to make sure it keeps coming in.

One of my goals is to emulate last year’s U.K. charity of the year, Riders For Health, in getting industry and cyclist support and developing the number of cycle shops and manufacturers that donate old/outdated or unwanted stock. Spare parts are very important, for refurbishing and also ongoing maintenance, especially as we set up a growing number of workshops, which all will need a lot of stock to start, due to the lack of standard-size parts.

Re~Cycle volunteers pack bikes for shipment to Africa.

We had a local retired chap over this morning to look at how he can help us. He seemed very keen and organized, the latter being a sought after quality in Re~Cycle! It turns out he’s got lots of energy and some good ideas, though he also seemed very set on doing things his way. You have to take what you can get, hey! I was rather hoping he would help recruit and manage volunteers, a weak area.

I’m looking to develop and refine our work in Essex, as well as setting up seven more “hubs” over the next three years. One of the big questions is the relationship between headquarters and the local branches, finding a balance of autonomy and control, looking at accounting, legal issues, and such forth. London is a current priority, due to density of bikes/shops and the amount of money there. One of the main things needed for a hub is storage, with is far from cheap in the city!

Our main South African partner has a meeting this afternoon with the minister of transport (Dullah Omar, who was one of Nelson Mandela’s lawyers and friend). The meeting was scheduled to look at ways to partner with the government more efficiently and helpfully. I’ll get the details from the meeting and report back tomorrow.

Gotta nip and pick up my daughter …

Wednesday, 20 Nov 2002

LONDON, U.K.

Last night, my daughter crashed early (we were supposed to be going round to my mum’s). I had a smoke, finished off a job application to the landfill tax people (looking good about $80,000 per year for three years!), then messed around more with hard drives (they were working but are screwing up again … it’s a personal battle now!).

I called my mate Phil, who designed our award-winning website. He, aptly, lives in Silicon Valley, and has been having some time off due to having recently had twins arrive. Talk about spinning plates! This is how I feel with Re~Cycle a lot — focus needed.

One day I may get my sleep pattern in line with the rest of the U.K., though I find I work well in the evening, with no phone calls to interrupt my groove.

Here’s how our day went today:

8:30 a.m. — Up we get. Compost out, pack a little, couple of email and calls, breakfast.

9:50 — My daughter meets her mum at the bus stop, to go to hospital for a check up for an ongoing problem.

Burn CD on some of our charity info for Velo Vision, a friend’s bike magazine, with a Friday deadline.

Get my email off Soo’s (my sidekick) computer, on a floppy, as the wretched network isn’t playing the game.

10:30 — Nine-mile ride to Colchester, taking it slow as I messed my leg up recently, and my knee’s been a little weak after overdoing it a month ago, dancing and cycling. Bike across London for a meeting with a computer-shipping charity, then back again …

A funny thing happened on the way to town: My sister was coming past as I bike past. She was in her boyfriend’s car, and tried to cover her face so I didn’t see her! The reason being that said boyfriend is an arms dealer, of the international type, as well as having a chain of gun-and-tackle shops, though these are not like such shops in the U.S., thankfully! So we, the family, have not met the boyfriend, as she wants to keep him separate from us. One of my favorite quotes is from Mark Thomas, a U.K. chap similar to Michael Moore, who said, “I’ve always wanted to walk up to an arms dealer, punch him in the face, and say ‘Well if I didn’t do it, someone else would.'” That said, I’ve been a pacifist for over half my life, to the extent of breaking up a fight between strangers in Brixton Market. It helps being 6 foot 2 sometimes.

11:20 — Meet the nipper and her mum at the hospital. All’s okay, don’t need to come back.

12:20 p.m. — I take the train to London, make a couple of phone calls, and fit in a quick sleep.

I pedal across to Trafalgar Square, just time to stop at whole foods shop to buy lunch to go.

13:45 — I arrive just in time for a free workshop on legacy giving, or planned giving as it’s known in the U.S. Very informative. I’d previously known that there’s a good amount of money in it.

17:00 — The session finishes, and I talk to an Australian lass I am sitting next to, who says there is a similar group to Re~Cycle in Oz, shipping bikes to Timor. The crazy/serendipitous thing is that we got an email this morning, asking if we knew of anyone doing this in Australia.

I had a chat with Chris, the guy running the workshop who’s very keen on the whole bicycle-shipping thing!

I had supper with a couple of friends with whom I’m going into business selling NXT technology flat speakers, which are super cool.

I was blown out yet again by John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue, a magazine sold by homeless people, who’s a very busy chap. I was supposed to see him this evening, though he had to help with someone who’d been arrested. He says to call tomorrow.

22:00 – Shit, forgot the Grist diary.

The hectic pace means that I have not yet called our South African partners to find out what happened with yesterday’s meeting with the country’s Transport minister. I’ll make the calls tomorrow …

Thursday, 21 Nov 2002

WEST MERSEA, Essex, U.K.

I’m back in the office now, after some damp bike riding.

I met a shipping agent in Colchester, my train station, and got some more info about the shipping industry, which is a funny old business, with the companies competing in some areas and cooperating on other routes. The whole thing has been pretty tight for a while, with lots of companies closing down. The chap I met was very nice. I told him what we’re paying and he’s going to see what he can do. Oh, and we traded “stuck-in-customs” stories.

Which brings me to the South Africa situation, which is distinctly not good. I had an email exchange and phone call from Maikel who runs Afribike, the charity there. He emailed, “The meeting with the minister of transport can be classified as a COMPLETE DISASTER, I think. It was not the minister’s fault, but essentially the officials, including Ibrahim (National Department of Transport) and Nazir (National Roads Agency), who nailed us and said that just calling it a day would be the best thing. They said if Afribike thought it had a claim it should follow the legal route to suing the department. The meeting was declared over quite quickly and I was just left sitting there staring into space.”

South Africa is a very political place, and it seems that Afribike is being used as a scapegoat. ‘Tis a pain, as the National Roads Agency was saying 10 months ago that it was very happy to help/pay/contribute toward the shipping costs. One of the pains here is that the latest decision could have been made then, months ago; living with uncertainty is not “good” for people. Well, at least we know where we stand now.

Afribike does work with other funders, so it does not have all its eggs in one basket, though there has been a very disproportionate amount in the government one. (This is worthwhile bearing in mind in terms of funding, as governments are legendary for changing priority areas in a flash, leaving you high and dry if that’s 70-plus percent of your funding.)

Maikel carries on: “Since then we have regrouped … and the good thing is that we got our proposal to Vodacom (a South African cell phone company, funding a Zulu bicycle cultural tour scheme) approved so there is a lifeline again.”

Maikel’s going to Cape Town next week to meet with some Dutch bicycle manufacturers that are looking to build bikes there, and he will meet with the customs folk, so hopefully will be able to sort it out. He’s emailing me the officer’s number so I can do my charming-him-on-the-phone routine. I’m going to talk to some of the players over there and see what’s going on, and what the future holds …

All this confirms my urge to diversify destinations for shipping, both in and out of Africa, as the bikes keep turning up at our barn in the U.K. Rather than focus our attention elsewhere, I think that Re~Cycle should look at other parts of Africa, particularly east coast, because:

  • We get a good (50 percent) discount with Safmarine, the South African national shipping line. It also ships to other places in Africa, though they are more expensive.
  • South America can be serviced by U.S. and Canada groups.
  • Eastern Europe is cheaper to get to for groups in Germany and Scandinavia.

My lovely 4-year-old daughter Achala (Indian for mountain/steady) has just been dropped off. She turned on the waterworks when I said I wasn’t going to go play downstairs and have supper. She says this diary (she was around Tuesday evening, too) is silly and horrid and why am I always working?

I asked her what crying was going to do about it, and assured her I would rather be playing with her! The working-from-home thing is, as with many other things, a double-edged sword; it’s great to be able to help out during the day, though it does distract from getting stuff done.

Other than funding, the main thing I’m currently looking at is how best to expand Re~Cycle, viz organizational structure. The group very much boils down to logistics, as I see it, in that there are millions of bikes sitting in sheds while there are millions of people walking.

Time to pop next door and get the nipper back.

Friday, 22 Nov 2002

WEST MERSEA, Essex, U.K.

Well, time to cram it in hey!

After leaving university, where I got the idea for Re~Cycle, I became involved in the U.K. anti-road protest movement and similar NVDA (nonviolent direct action) causes, like Reclaim the Streets and Liverpool Dockers. The first tree village was more interesting than reviewing for my finals, to be sure! The problem was that there was always a worthwhile mission somewhere, and Re~Cycle wasn’t happening, due to lack of focus on my part. The turning point was when I turned down Greenpeace Germany’s offer to pay me to do a banner drop at an anti-logging event — I’m very good at being naughty — and I’ve been legit ever since, around five years.

I’m still totally into NVDA, and indeed miss it more than a little. However, I’m also in favor of a MULTI-PRONGED ATTACK on the status quo, and believe I’m making/catalyzing a lot of change here. I’m also slightly paranoid that in this technological age, a longer criminal record as an activist would stop me from going to poor countries, which often have repressive governments.

I would describe myself as a serial social entrepreneur, having attended the School for Social Entrepreneur, which is very much recommended for the U.K. folk. They say that you’re born a social entrepreneur, though you can also develop skills. I’m learning to play to and improve my skills, and have lots of other great projects on the back burner (and I’ve been pretty good at keeping them there, making sure I stay focused on Re~Cycle). My father’s after me to take over the family business (very posh yachts), and is not at all keen on all this “activity,” as he calls it — “it’s not a job.” I’ve pretty much given up on the quest for respect, though he did give me a Palm (handheld computer) for Christmas, which I find very useful, as opposed to the envelope technique I had been using.

Toting kayaks with a FreeRadical.

Oh, I forgot the web link for the FreeRadical, relating to the CD I was burning on Wednesday. The World’s First Sports Utility Bicycle, the FreeRadical transforms a regular bike into a go-anywhere cargo carrier. It performs on rugged terrain with payloads of up to 200 pounds, while maintaining the friendly handling of a mountain bike. A FreeRadical-equipped bike can easily haul lumber, computers, kids, adults, kayaks, and ladders — loads previously considered too long, heavy, or bulky to be transported by bicycle. Adding a FreeRadical to a bike is like adding a thumb to a four-fingered hand. Using it, I’ve regularly taken two adults and a child up and down hills (with clip-in pedals). The idea started with trying to make bikes more effective in less developed countries, making them more useful for taking goods to market, fetching water, etc. The company that makes them has a charitable arm, which Re~Cycle works with. The inventors are so confident in their product that they offer an “it-will-change-your-life-in-30-days-or-your-money-back-guarantee.”

I attended the World Summit on Sustainable Development earlier this year in Johannesburg, nearby our main workshop. Here are a couple of nuggets to give people and idea of how bad the even turned out:

  • The German Green Party called off its end-of-summit party.
  • In the session on sustainable mobility, which we weren’t allowed to attend, the words bike, public transport, and non-motorized transport were not heard. Just the tire people talking to the car people talking to the petrol people. Bloody great.

The whole thing was pretty depressing, though I was inspired by Mission Antarctica — now Inspia — a project to clean up rubbish left in Antarctica.

Well, that’s all for now folks, please check out our award-wining website for more info, send us some money, and help make the world a better place through your actions. Plus, we’re looking for interns, if anyone’s interested.

I’m off for supper with daughter and her mum, and then the quest for the legendary early night continues.

Have a great weekend and keep up the good work! Give me a shout if you’re coming to the U.K.