Wycliffe Waweru grew up in Buruburu, a middle-class residential area in east Nairobi, riding bicycles from dawn to dusk with his friends in the neighborhood. The group would often hold relay races, attracting a crowd of children cheering on the winners. Not every child owned a bike, but every child rode one. His fascination with bicycles extended beyond his childhood.
During school holidays, as a teenager, he would spend his free time on Moi Avenue visiting a shop called Kenya Cycle Land. There he sat in the repair section, watching mechanics at work and dreaming of one day owning a high-end bicycle like the ones for sale in the shop. He knew his parents would not cough out Kshs. 20,000 to buy him a bicycle, but he was happy to be in that shop.
Although he has been riding bicycles since he was a 5-year-old, he didn’t actually own his first bicycle until age 13. His parents bought him his first bike, a single-speed one, and it was stolen. He ended up just riding his brother’s bicycle after that. Waweru would not own his own bicycle again until his 20s. He graduated from university with a degree in business information systems and found a job with a good income but realized he was confined. The job got him enough money to buy six mountain bikes, but he wasn’t riding any of them. He was working seven days a week.
In late 2009 he left his job to translate his passion for bicycles into something more. He went back to Buruburu, where it all started, and teamed up with Kevin Okello, owner of Bike Skills, a small shop that holds around 300 bicycles. Waweru started selling second-hand bicycles on the roadside, mainly to middle-class Kenyans who were buying bicycles for leisure and recreation, for themselves and their children. It eventually grew to diplomats, aid agencies and UN employees.
Even though Waweru and his mentor, Okello, were doing well, they realized there was a greater need. Many new customers simply could not afford to purchase the bikes with a single payment of cash. The demand for bicycles for the working poor and flexible payment modes paved the way for a new opportunity for them. These people tend to be low-income earners working in industries such as manufacturing or services making roughly Kshs. 15,000.00 – Kshs. 23,000.00 a month. For them, walking is their only mode of travel because even public transportation, such as matatus, is too expensive.
In 2012, Waweru approached Autofine Limited, an auto repair shop in the Industrial Area with a proposal to supply Autofine employees with bicycles via his innovative “micro-leasing” project. This was his initial pilot project, where employees chose their bikes and paid for them through small monthly installments. It is similar to how Americans finance the purchase of a new car, paid for over a number of months such as a 24- or 36-month lease, only in this case there is no down payment and no need for banks to be involved. For this project, Autofine employees received a used bike for Kshs. 1,200.00 a month, automatically deducted from their monthly paycheck. By reducing the average employee’s monthly transport costs from Kshs. 3,000.00 for the matatus to Kshs. 1,200.00 with a bike, each person in the program saved almost Kshs. 2,000.00 a month. In Kenya this can be the difference between sending a child to school or forcing the child to stay home and enter the labor force.
The program not only saves money but reduces the commute time for those walking to work. It increases productivity and efficiency in the workplace. Additionally those in the program noted experiencing a healthier lifestyle, and discovered the ability to carry outside business ventures with their own bikes or what they described as “side hustles” on the weekends. In other words they became empowered. Empowered to ride. Empowered to earn more. Empowered to think and grow. It was a big success, where these pilot project guys all went back to different neighborhoods, and they spread the word. Everybody wanted a bike.
Equipping people for economic transformation appears to be the ethos of Play Guru. You should live your life like someone who wakes up to ride a bicycle. You only fall when balance is lost so keep riding.
Credit: Noorulain Khawaja