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Cycling Toward Success in Kenya

In 2003, Kenya made primary education free, dramatically increasing enrollment, but also unintentionally lengthening commuting distances for many students. Young girls have been most affected, but a simple solution can make a huge difference.

NAIROBI – How did you get to school when you were young? For many people in developed countries, the answer was a guaranteed (if under-appreciated) mode of transit such as a school bus or a parent’s car. But reliable mobility is not something students in Kenya take for granted. For Kenyans, transportation to school is, quite literally, our ticket to a better future.

In 2003, when Kenya made primary school free for everyone, total enrollment surged to 104%. But this dramatic increase in access was not accompanied by any noticeable expansion of school facilities. As many schools struggled to accommodate the influx of new students, a dearth of local classrooms forced pupils in rural areas to travel farther from their homes in search of a seat. This extra travel time lowered attendance rates and negatively affected learning outcomes; according to one study, just 63% of students who started in a free primary school finished, while 58% of those who enrolled in secondary school never graduated.

Excessive commutes are thus depriving Kenya’s young people of the education they have been promised; girls in particular are disadvantaged by distance. Fortunately, there is a simple solution: match free schooling with free bicycles.

In rural parts of Kenya, this is slowly happening, and the results so far have been remarkable. Consider, for example, the story of Carol, a 15-year-old secondary-school student who spent years walking six kilometers (3.7 miles) to class every day. Born to a poor family, Carol could not always bring lunch, and, because not all Kenyan public schools serve meals, she was often forced to skip food entirely. This lack of nutrition severely affected her ability to learn and concentrate.

And yet, the long walk and hunger pangs were not the worst of it; like thousands of other girls in rural and hard-to-reach parts of Kenya, Carol’s day does not start by getting ready for school. After waking up at 4:30 am, she makes breakfast for her family and cleans their mud-thatched house. Then, when she returns home after school, she washes the day’s dishes and helps make dinner. By the time those chores are done, Carol is usually too tired to do her homework.

But a few years ago, Carol’s life changed significantly when she was given access to a safe, fast, and reliable way to get to school. World Bicycle Relief, an American charity that provides free bicycles to people in Africa, cut her commuting time from two hours to 30 minutes. Now, Carol arrives at school feeling fresh and alert, and this has dramatically improved her outlook and performance. Her grades, she tells me, are also improving.

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Students are not the only ones who suffer from a lack of reliable transportation. When farmers, health-care workers, and public-sector employees cannot get to their jobs promptly, productivity drops and output declines. World Bicycle Relief has helped these people, too. Since 2005, more than 400,000 bicycles have been distributed around the world, benefiting some two million people. But for female students in Kenya, the gift of mobility has been especially transformative.

Today, when Carol rides to school on her sturdy black bicycle, she is actively dismantling gender stereotypes that pervade many African societies. For girls, the pressure to drop out of school and marry young is intense; in fact, nearly a quarter of all Kenyan girls – some 23% – are married by the time they are 18. But by getting to school on time, Carol is building self-esteem and giving herself a chance at educational success. What’s more, the hordes of exploitative men who harassed her daily when she walked are now one less annoyance to contend with.

With a simple change to her mobility, educational success is within reach for Carol and many other Kenyan girls. Kenya still has much work to do to ensure that every young person who wants to go to school can. But on the long road to educational equality, it is comforting to know that not every solution needs to be complicated.