Nairobi – 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.
“I knew my parents would not cough out $2,000 to buy me a bicycle, but I was happy to be in that shop,” said Waweru, 30. “I knew I couldn’t afford it, but I couldn’t beat myself down.”
Although he has been riding bicycles since he was a 5-year-old, he didn’t actually own his first bicycle until age 13.
“My parents bought me my first bike, a single-speed one, and it was stolen,” said Waweru. “I ended up just riding my 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.
“I had a job, but I realized I was confined. The job got me enough money to buy six mountain bikes, but I wasn’t riding any of them,” he said. “I 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 us,” said Waweru.
These people tend to be low-income earners working in industries such as manufacturing or services making roughly $150-$230 a month. For them, walking is their only mode of travel because even public transportation, such as matatus (minibuses), 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 $12 a month, automatically deducted from their monthly paycheck. By reducing the average employee’s monthly transport costs from $30 for the matatus to $12 with a bike, each person in the program saved almost $20 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,” he said. "For us we had to make it a Kenyan success story."
But the small team was not ready for the overwhelming public response: in the 3 weeks following the start of the Autofine pilot project nearly 7,000 orders rolled in for the micro-lease bikes. And this was not one large order, but multiple individual orders.
This growth occurred in 2014, which is when he decided to start his own company called Play Guru. Play Guru is a sports solution company aimed at promoting cycling in Kenya both for transport and recreation.
Waweru knew the only way to meet demand would be by opening a bicycle assembly plant, a first of its kind in the country, with the help of private investors and the Kenyan government. It is set to open in early 2017 in collaboration with the government’s “Vision 2030” plan. There are also valid market reasons for the need to produce their own bikes: all parts become standardized and the company can then offer warranties. MOUs between Play Guru and employers set the price for these new bikes at $150, with an employee contributing $15 a month for 10 months.
The team began to imagine how they could fill this order. The answer came in the form of imported bike parts from Taiwan, which will allow them to fill orders of 10,000 bikes a month by mid-2017. The Value Added Tax (VAT) applied to the imported bike parts creates a new revenue stream for the government, which further increases government buy-in as a stakeholder pushing for the success of the bike project.
There is a critical economic benefit as well. A local bike manufacturer dedicated to sustainability and local impact could have an effect that can uplift the Kenyan manufacturing sector bringing higher wage jobs.
Play Guru is planning to have one plant in Nairobi and six more throughout the country, creating jobs for locals and young Kenyans who want to get vocational training. A lesson here for the reader is that profit driven enterprises, such as a company manufacturing bikes, can have a positive social impact—bringing low cost, reliable and quality bicycles to the working poor, showing that Play Guru’s ‘micro-lease’ program is feasible. The company benefits from sales, the people benefit due to the innovative finance payment system, and the government benefits by increasing transportation choice for the people.
"Knowledge transfer is critical for wealth creation and we need to empower as many people as possible through this platform," said Waweru.
Okello illustrates the bigger picture and how it will have a socioeconomic impact: “These bikes would really help many people. Some walk 5 kilometers to office, but if they had a bike, it would really change their life.”
One person who can attest to that is Mark Munyasia who has been riding for four years. He is one of Play Guru’s pilot project riders, working as a security officer at a bank in Buruburu.
Now he gets to work in 15 minutes, whereas before he would walk for an hour and a half. Occasionally he would take a matatu, which would cost him 60 cents a day, a price that he could not afford.
“It’s really helped me and changed my life because I come direct to work, I get to exercise, and I don’t spend money,” said Munyasia. “Whatever I save, I can actually buy milk for my kids. I am very happy.”
Another pilot project rider is Cavein Ogutu, a security officer at the British High Commission in Nairobi. He, too, has seen an economic transformation all because of his Black Mamba bicycle. Ogutu, who lives in Kayole, loves to ride, but cycling is not a sport for him. He is trying to improve his son’s life.
He can now save money to send back home to his mother in Bondo, near Kisumu. She is looking after his 5-year-old son because Ogutu cannot afford to have his son live with him.
“I changed the method which I am commuting to work because I just want the kid to have a good life,” said Ogutu. “I think I’ll just cycle until my last breath, as long as my kid is alive.”
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,” said Waweru. “You only fall when balance is lost so keep riding.”