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Happiness on Two Wheels

One man discovered a surprising way needy countries could create success: bicycles.

Pedaling his way to success
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For most of us biking is a fun pastime. But for people who spend hours—or days—walking to get to water, food, school or work, a bike is life-changing. That’s what David Schweidenback realized in the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town in Ecuador.

“Everyone in town walked everywhere except my landlord, who had a bicycle,” David recalls. “He got more done than anyone else. After all, business is the movement of goods and services.”

David returned to the United States, married, had kids and ran a successful construction company in New Jersey for 24 years. Then he began noticing discarded bikes and remembered a part of the Peace Corps creed: Take what you’ve learned and use it. He decided to try to collect a dozen bikes over a weekend to send to a developing country. His local newspaper did a story on his quest, and donated bicycles flooded in.

“Okay, wiseguy, what are you going to do now?” his wife asked Sunday night, surveying the 140 bikes piled in their yard. David partnered with a church that sent a shipping container of goods to an impoverished Nicaraguan town twice a year.

“They let me squeeze in fifty bikes and the people flipped out, they were ecstatic,” says David. Pedals for Progress was born.

After three years he saw that there were still thousands of landfill-bound bikes and millions of people who needed them, so he quit his job to become a bike broker full-time. His wife’s response? “Her eyebrows went up,” he laughs. “But she knew I had to get this out of my system.”

To date Pedals for Progress has collected more than 100,000 bikes (and has expanded to include used sewing machines).

“Getting them moved halfway around the world is challenging,” David admits. He asks bike donors to contribute $10 to help cover shipping costs (around $28 for each bike).

To promote economic growth in developing countries, Pedals for Progress encourages locals to establish community-owned bike shops: They get the first shipment of bikes for free, then have to make enough repairing and selling the bikes to pay for the next shipment. Bicycles have been sent to communities in eight countries, including Guatemala, Barbados and Uganda. “These towns are now having an economic renaissance!” David says. “It feels tremendous.”

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