By Laura Newman
MACEPA Senior Communications Associate
When I traveled to Mazabuka to meet with community health workers in southern Zambia, I wasn’t expecting to spend an afternoon talking about bicycles. Mazabuka is located in Zambia’s lush Southern Province, where the Malaria Control and Elimination Partnership in Africa (MACEPA) has been teaming up with the Ministry of Health to pilot innovative ways to fight malaria. Trained to diagnose and treat the disease, healthcare workers are at the frontlines of this effort, often walking many miles each day to reach people in rural areas who otherwise might not be able to access basic health services.
It’s exceptionally hard work, and World Bicycle Relief (WBR) Country Director Brian Moonga says, “Ten miles in Chicago is not the same as ten miles in Africa.” Temperatures often hover in the upper 90s, torrential downpours occur in the rainy season, and encounters with wild animals are not unheard of. These are just some of the reasons why the healthcare workers I spoke with—Gertrude Moonga, Robert Kaile, and Francis Mwale—were so excited to have recently received bicycles to help them travel from centrally-located health facilities to rural households where people sick with malaria may need their help.
The healthcare workers’ bicycles are all Buffalo bikes, a subsidiary of the nonprofit World Bicycle Relief which aims to leverage the power of bikes as a means to fight poverty and improve equity. How can a bicycle do all that? The bikes are specially built for traveling over rugged terrain and carrying heavy loads, made with heavy gauge materials and puncture-resistant tires. They are designed for use in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, where having access to a bicycle can make a difference whether or not a child can attend school, a farmer can transport goods to the market—or a mother sick with malaria can receive medication in time.
Says World Bicycle Relief’s Moonga: “Bicycles are machines for social empowerment, and they can provide a quantum leap in productivity.” The nonprofit estimates that a bicycle saves three hours of time for every ten miles traveled and can increase an individual’s carrying capacity by five times, which has a huge impact on a healthcare worker’s potential effectiveness and quality of life. And while chatting that afternoon, it became clear that the healthcare workers viewed their bicycles as critical tools for fighting malaria—as important as the diagnostic and treatment kits they carry with them.
World Bicycle Relief has been working with MACEPA over the last year to help procure, distribute, and maintain Buffalo bicycles for more than 1,500 healthcare workers that are part of an effort to drive down malaria transmission in areas hardest hit by the disease. Painted bright orange, the bicycles are well recognized by the communities. “When they see the bikes, they know we have come to fight malaria,” says Robert, who has worked in his community for the past four years. “People are happy to see us.”
Zambia has made major progress in fighting malaria in recent years, carrying out a nationwide effort to expand access to mosquito nets, indoor spraying of insecticides, and effective diagnosis and medicines that has dramatically reduced malaria illnesses and deaths over a relatively short period of time. But the disease still poses a significant threat, especially to young children and pregnant women living in rural areas. The Ministry of Health’s long-term vision is to eliminate malaria altogether in Zambia, in part by targeting areas with persistently high rates of malaria infection with mass testing and treating campaigns. These campaigns rely heavily on healthcare workers going door-to-door, visiting every single household to help drive malaria out of a community. The bicycles are critical to helping them ensure that they are able to bring healthcare services to everyone.
As the resident Country Director for Zambia, Brian can personally attest to the importance of this work; when I spoke to him, he had just been discharged after spending three days in the hospital after a particularly nasty malaria infection. “Fighting malaria in Zambia is quite critical, and we are passionate to see how bicycles will help this program move forward.” As for Robert, Gertrude, and Francis, they know exactly how they will be moving forward from now on—more efficiently, more easily, and on two wheels.