Life on a bike

Andrea Coleman is co-founder and CEO of Riders for Health, a charity which mobilises health workers in rural Africa with motorcycles and four-wheeled vehicles. We asked Andrea what makes a motorbike so effective at delivering healthcare in Africa.

Read THINK!’s advice for motorcyclists and drivers on how to stay safe on the road

Riders for Health – mobilising health workers in rural Africa

What do Riders for Health do? Where do you work? What type of healthcare concerns do riders respond to?

Riders for Health mobilise health workers in rural Africa with reliable, well maintained vehicles. We manage both motorcycles and four-wheeled vehicles, but most of the individual health workers ride motorcycles. We train them to ride safely, even in the very tough, off-road conditions in rural Africa, and our trained technicians service their bikes every month so they never break down.

A health worker with a reliable motorcycle can see anywhere up to six times as many people as when they have no transport. They are responsible for up to 15,000 people anywhere up to 20km away from their clinic and can spend twice as long with patients. They provide health care to people with HIV, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and provide vaccinations to children, and maternal health care to women. In the past few years we’ve also worked with governments to establish a network of motorcycle couriers who transport patient samples and test results. This has been so successful that we have now expanded the programme into Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.

Munchini village

What makes a motorbike more effective at delivering healthcare in Africa than four-wheeled vehicles?

For individual health workers in remote communities, a motorcycle really is the best tool for the job. They are far cheaper than a four-wheeled vehicle (for the cost of one vehicle you can mobilise six health workers on bikes) and better suited to the terrain. The bike is able to fit down the narrowest of tracks and reach villages where a four-wheeled vehicle cannot. They are simpler and easier to maintain for the health workers, and easier to service for our technicians.

There is something about being on a bike that means you are still part of your surroundings, rather than being shut away inside a car. As a health workers rides through a community she can stop and speak to people, she is part of her community.

What type of bikes do your riders use?

Our health workers use a variety of different models, but they all share the same characteristics. They are simple, low cost machines that have been designed for use off road, mainly by farmers in Australia and the USA. They have a low seat height and low power output which makes it easier to train people who have never ridden before and makes them safer to ride.

Road accidents are one of the biggest causes of premature deaths across Africa. What sort of training do riders undergo to ensure they stay safe on Africa’s roads? What can UK riders learn from the training you provide to your riders?

Training and the safety of our health workers is very important to us. Each health worker receives protective motorcycle clothing and completes a two week course, and then we call them back after six months for refresher training, followed by more training every year.

Our training is based on good machine control, observation, awareness and anticipation. Just like UK riders, the most important thing is teaching people how to ride defensively. This includes teaching riders to:

  • Be as visible as possible
  • Anticipate hazards and be able to stop in time to avoid them
  • Ensure their speed is appropriate to negotiate bends without losing control and on the approach to junctions
  • Be confident in the way they handle their motorcycle and to be completely aware of their surroundings at all times.
Motorcycle training

How can proper bike maintenance help riders in Africa but also here in the UK stay safe on the road?

Basic maintenance and regular safety checks are absolutely crucial to safety, whether it’s in Africa or here in the UK. Health workers are taught to check their motorcycles every day and carry out simple checks that we call PLANS – that is petrol, lubrication, adjustments, nuts and bolts and stopping (that’s the tyres and brakes). It’s about making sure the tyres are at the correct pressure and free of punctures, the brakes adjusted correctly, the chain is at the right tension, there enough engine oil and water. The roads might be better here in the UK, but these are the kind of checks we should all carry out on our vehicles wherever we are.

motorcycle maintenance
Andrea Coleman

Tell us about your motorcycling background

I bought my first bike when I was 16. My brother got me my first racing licence and I raced for 4 years. My father, Jack Williams was a motorcycle racer in the 1930s and a development engineer for Vincent, AJS and Matchless motorcycles. My brother, Peter Williams, was a highly successful racer and is an esteemed development engineer. My mum's brother, Tommy, was NSU works motorcycle racer before the second World War.

My first husband, Tom Herron, was a very successful Grand Prix rider in the 1970s. He was killed at the North West 200 in 1979.

Barry, my husband, and I co-founded Riders for Health together with Randy Mamola. Barry was the motorcycle journalist for the Guardian and Randy is a many times grand prix winner, commentator and racing mentor.

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