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Give every health worker in Africa a bike

By Andrea Coleman and Barry Coleman
December 15, 2013 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Misheck Mafemera, a health care worker, uses his motorcycle to see people in villages in the Seke district of Zimbabwe.
Misheck Mafemera, a health care worker, uses his motorcycle to see people in villages in the Seke district of Zimbabwe.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Andrea and Barry Coleman: Health workers in rural Africa need help
  • Colemans: Without reliable transport, they couldn't reach and care for the sick
  • If every health worker had a working bike, we could transform lives, they say
  • Colemans: We could end deaths from the preventable diseases that kill millions

Editor's note: Andrea Coleman and Barry Coleman are co-founders of Riders for Health, an organization that helps health workers in Africa reach more people. This is one in a series of columns CNN Opinion is publishing in association with the Skoll World Forum on people who are finding new ways to help solve the world's biggest problems.

(CNN) -- Mambwe Kaemba fastens her helmet, pulls on her gloves and rides her red Yamaha motorcycle out of the courtyard of the Ministry of Health. She has already done the daily checks on her motorcycle. Yes, the chain is adjusted correctly, she has fuel and oil. She's now set for a day vaccinating newborns. Her journey will take her over an unmade, potholed track that she has been trained to navigate with ease on her little bike.

Kaemba is a health worker in Southern Province, Zambia. She serves about 6,000 people spread over a 20 kilometer area. The fact that she has any kind of transport at all marks her out as being very unusual.

When we first met health workers like Kaemba, they told us that when they didn't have a bike -- which was most of the time -- or, when they have a bike and that it had broken down -- almost always -- they couldn't do the job they had been trained for.

Barry Coleman
Barry Coleman

The health workers who serve rural communities in Africa are some of the most dedicated people in the world. They don't earn much money and often have to live hundreds of miles away from their families. They know that there are people in remote villages who need their help and, when they can't reach them, it's a big burden for them to carry.

Andrea Coleman
Andrea Coleman

Often they will walk. Walk for hours at a time. In the sun or rain, across tough terrain, carrying whatever they can manage. They arrive exhausted, knowing that they do not have long before they must return home.

It was frustrating to see health workers like Kaemba unable to do their jobs, and women and children who struggle to walk for miles to reach a health center when they get sick.

There were motorcycles and ambulances that were broken and rusting, simply because no one was trained on how to look after them properly.

A group of health workers in Mantanyani village, Southern Province, in Zambia, provide a health education lesson to local people about the importance of using water treatment kits.
A group of health workers in Mantanyani village, Southern Province, in Zambia, provide a health education lesson to local people about the importance of using water treatment kits.

This was 20 years ago. The situation was unacceptable and made us angry. It is why we re-mortgaged our home and gave up our careers to start Riders for Health. We took big risks to develop an organization that would try to change the status quo.

We knew we could make a difference. It would involve people getting their hands dirty and dealing with spanners and spark plugs and things not normally associated with health care. But this was just as important as investing billions of dollars in developing a new vaccine. Because if the vaccine never reaches the child, what good is it?

We started working with our friends and colleagues in the world of motorcycles. To this day, they continue to support our work.

We also began working with ministries of health in African countries to put in place technicians, systems for delivering replacement parts and fuel, and training health workers how to look after their own bikes.

For programs to be sustainable, they have to have their roots in the local communities. So all our program teams are led and staffed by local people.

Riders for Health now has programs in seven countries, transforming health care for 14 million people. This is not charity -- it is a partnership between governments and an organization that can help them to better serve their people.

The programs are designed so our partners, including ministries of health, pay for our services. By covering the full cost of running their vehicles, even at a not-for-profit rate, it means countries and their health workers are never without transport. They can budget for it accordingly, knowing exactly how much it will cost.

For Kaemba, it means she can do her job well. Health workers like her can now reach far more people. And because they no longer have to walk so much they can spend more time with the people they are caring for.

She might only be one woman, with one bike, but Kaemba is a symbol for health care across Africa. If every health worker had access to reliable transport we could reach every man, woman and child. We could transform lives and end deaths from the preventable diseases that kill millions of people each year. We could make sure health care reaches everyone, everywhere.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrea Coleman and Barry Coleman.

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