In anticipation of the upcoming Social Enterprise World Forum from October 2 to 4 in Calgary, Alberta, SEE Change spoke with speaker Andrea Coleman, CEO and co-Founder of Riders for Health, about her award-winning organization and how a love for motorcycles inspired change in the provision of health care in Africa.
It all began in the late 1980s when motorcycle enthusiasts, Andrea and Barry Coleman, became upset upon hearing people in Africa were dying when proper healthcare couldn’t reach them due to inadequate means of transportation. Naysayers were convinced it was impossible to keep vehicles running in Africa, but the Colemans begged to differ.
Enter Riders for Health, a social enterprise that manages and maintains motorcycles, ambulances and other four-wheel vehicles used by their partners in the delivery of health care in seven countries across sub-Saharan Africa.
At the core of their work is training in preventive vehicle maintenance, all the while providing employment opportunities to build local capacity. Riders for Health enables health workers to deliver vital health care to rural communities on a reliable and cost-effective basis.
It’s been twenty years and Riders for Health is going strong, improving access to health care to over 12 million people and counting.
What inspired you to launch Riders for Health?
Essentially, I love motorcycle sports; I’m dedicated to it, watch it all the time and love people who work in it. I feel motorcycles are essential pieces of technical beauty but can also be a tool. Racing is really focused on itself; it has to be. But I had a real need to make it bigger than that so it wasn’t so intensely internally focused.
Motorcycling is a state of mind. A lot of them [motorcyclists] tend to be non-conventional and I think it was those elements that really helped us. When we were in Africa, we saw all these broken vehicles and women and children separated from things they need simply because people didn’t have transport to get there. We thought it was crazy, it didn’t make sense to us. It made us angry that somehow the world had failed to look at something very practical, fundamental, these basic needs.
We had done fundraising before in Africa, we both felt it was something that mattered to us. But we never thought beyond that. Then it just took off. All sense and reason goes out the window when you realize this is something that really needs to be done.
How has it evolved over the years?
Our fundamental principle was to make sure that the maintenance of vehicles was done properly. That was what was absent and we knew there was a need. So that’s what we settled on first – training local people in skills needed to run engines and to create a supply chain and do all the basic things that we take for granted.
But then how do you ensure that you run vehicles so that they don’t break down in very harsh environments, where there’s no service stations, no Jiffy Lube, no fuel? So the next step was to put in an infrastructure that isn’t found in the western world. To take the service station to the vehicle rather than the other way around and to make sure the health worker is trained in his/her daily maintenance and that he’s a part of the maintenance system, along with the technicians.
Once you have reliable transport and all things needed to keep things going and you know what the costs are – it must be a cost-effective solution – then we started to build all sorts of logistical, tailored solutions for specific issues. There are a million things that need transportation in that last mile, like the couriers who need to bring samples to lab for diagnoses, transferring mothers in labour to hospitals, making sure drugs get to health centres, etc.
Are you a self-sustaining social enterprise?
Not totally but we’re on that path. Within 10 years we’ll do it. All social enterprises are under-capitalized, it’s always a struggle. We started out earning our own money by putting on events in racing because we didn’t think anyone would donate. And then people started to give and we got some grants – and then they think you’re successful and don’t need anymore. But we do! It’s always a struggle to capitalize a social enterprise, but we have found financial models that have worked well, that are very successful.Andrea Coleman, Co-Founder/CEO, Riders for Health Credit: Tom Oldham
What are your greatest challenges?
There’s no point in setting out to do anything unless it’s sustainable. And, of course, as you work on these things, you learn what makes something sustainable and what doesn’t. Under the heading of “lessons learned” we know what those prerequisites are now: Your partner has to understand what you’re doing and why and they have to be committed to doing it just like you are; what do you do if your partner fails you, etc.
One of the biggest issues for anyone who wants to change the status quo, is it takes time. A lot of people aren’t willing to wait a long time as an investor. And government in Africa works slower than any other in the world. So you have to keep talking to people, explaining what it costs and why. It takes a long time to get these things embedded.
So the main challenge is time. Then it’s money. Then it’s making sure that you don’t spread yourself too thinly. Sure, say yes to something that fits with your mission, but there’s so much to do in Africa, it’s tempting to say yes to everything. However, hard as it is to say no to something, you have to.
You have to learn to plan but be opportunistic at the same time. Be sure whatever you say yes to fits with your mission. But you also have to keep your focus. If you don’t, you’re done for.
What is something you wish people understood better about what you do?
We often find that people think of the mobile phone as leapfrog technology and as a solution to the health issues in rural Africa. It’s certainly an excellent addition to the resources but people get a bit confused between mobile and mobility. At some point, a person or object has to arrive with another person.
You can only do that with transport. They are a good marriage but one doesn’t replace the other. And certainly, when it comes to heath care, you must have transport and it must be well-maintained and it must be managed in a systematic way. We have a lot of challenges with people saying, “Oh we don’t need transport because we have mobile phones.”
You can order pounds of potatoes by phone or email in California and have them delivered to Florida but they’re not going to get there by phone or email. Similarly, you can’t immunize a child with a mobile phone.
Andrea Coleman will be taking part in two panels at SEWF: Cross-Cultural Collaboration: Managing Beyond Borders on October 3 and Social Innovations in Health Care on October 4. For more info and to register: Social Enterprise World Forum
Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.