By Laura Gossman

Editor’s note: Laura Gossman interviewed Dustin McBride, co-founder of Zambikes, a social enterprise dedicated to providing efficient transportation for people living in impoverished areas that also has a social footprint dedicated to community development, vocational and leadership training, and developing relevant custom “Zambian” products.

Very rarely do you find participants from a short-term missions trip returning to their host country to apply their recently acquired international business degrees to develop a long-term, locally built business solution that helps alleviate poverty. That’s just what Azusa Pacific graduates Dustin McBride and Vaughn Spethmann did.

Visiting Zambia on a University-led missions trip in 2004, Dustin and Vaughn saw the positive impact of and need for reliable, high quality bicycles not only in Zambia but throughout Africa. As the two learned from their Zambian friends on this initial trip, workers often spent 75 per cent of their wages on transportation. That gave them the idea, Dustin recounted, “What about bicycles [as a reliable and less expensive form of transportation]? But I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to go (back) to Zambia unless a Zambian tells me it is their vision for their country.’” Benjamin Banda, who now serves as Facilities Caretaker of Zambikes, provided the requisite vision when he shared how he dreamed of having a bicycle business selling quality bikes. “That was the green light,” stated Dustin.

Zambikes' warehouse in Zambia full of products

Zambikes’ warehouse in Zambia full of products

The first business plan was created at Azusa Pacific University for an Entrepreneur class in 2006 and quickly became a reality when Dustin and Vaughn decided to launch into Zambia in 2007. Working together with locals Gershom Sikaala and Mwewa Chikamba, who shared the vision of “turning Africa around one bike at a time,” the company took root in July of 2007. Zambikes now has production, sales and distribution teams in both Zambia and Uganda as well as a small nonprofit team in the US dedicated to fundraising, accounting and communications.

Dustin and Vaughn hoped “to create a sustainable enterprise in Zambia that would have a positive social, spiritual, and financial impact on the people there. We had a vision to build a company that could be run by Zambians, that would serve the community by providing a quality, relevant product (a bicycle), and that would be an example of a company that employed undereducated Zambians and trained them to their full potential.” Currently more than 30 Africans are employed full-time through Zambikes activities in Zambia and Uganda.

The Zambikes staff

The Zambikes staff

Ignited by interactions with local community leaders, medical professionals, and development workers, it became apparent that there also was a critical need for basic medical transportation solutions in rural Africa. In an attempt to meet this need, the Zambulance was born; since its inception, it has been making a significant impact in providing emergency transportation.

Of course no start-up, especially one geared towards social impact in an African country, is without its challenges. “As owners of a company you have to apply the theory ‘Ready, Shoot, and Aim’… almost to our detriment we have lived out that theory,” said Dustin. First, they found the bicycle market throughout Africa very competitive and discovered most competitors didn’t conduct their businesses according to the same moral principles shared by the Zambikes founders. This in turn, made it difficult to offer competitive pricing while keeping the product quality high. Secondly, it was challenging to invest in their fresh hires, both educationally and personally, all while trying to run a sustainable organization. Dustin reflected, “as we grew, our model continued to grow and get more complicated, making it difficult to manage.”

Some of these challenges were addressed and overcome through their participation in Praxis Lab Incubator in 2013. “Praxis helped us think through what our model actually was, putting words to abstract ideas, and being able to organize our thoughts and hone in on who we really are and what we should be spending time on. We were able to recast our vision with help and assistance from Praxis over this last year. Praxis has been a massive help to Zambikes on an overall strategic development side and also on a networking and collaboration side.”

To address some of the competitive issues, they have continued to cut out middlemen in the bicycle importation process and build a brand name Zambians recognize as standing for quality bikes and quality service. With the challenge of employee development, the company promotes mostly from within and has stuck with some of their first employees, but at the same time Zambikes has also started to hire and recruit locals with higher educational levels for the jobs that have increased responsibility. Lastly, they reorganized and simplified their model in Zambia to make systems and procedures more manageable for the Zambian team.

The Zambian bamboo bike team with one of their bamboo bikes

The Zambian bamboo bike team with one of their bamboo bikes

Through operations in Zambia and Uganda, Zambikes now has the ability to distribute ambulances in nine neighboring countries: DR Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, South Sudan, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda and Burundi. The Zambia and Uganda teams also provide training and follow-up on the use of the Zambulance, conduct research into areas most in need of Zambulances, and build strategic partnerships with Ministries of Health and both local and international NGOs.

On that initial trip back in 2004, Dustin and Vaughn spent almost every day playing soccer with the locals and they observed how this experience seemed to “transcend” culture — suddenly all of them were on the same team with the same goal. “That was how we introduced ourselves to the community and the community [members] introduced themselves to us,” recalled Dustin. “You are blessed in order to be a blessing” was a common theme in their short-term training, and they have strived to weave that into their approach to this enterprise. As Dustin concluded, “So what are you going to do with that? People keep planning what they want to do their whole life…don’t get me wrong—you have to plan—but if you never shoot, you never will know what will actually work.”

A Zambulance for a community in Central Uganda!

A Zambulance for a community in Central Uganda!

So what will you do in your own vocation to be a blessing? Sometimes you have to be willing to shoot before your aim is perfect.

Fieldnotes Magazine invites you to find out how you can get involved with or donate to the Zambikes project.

Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and the mother of newborn Benjamin.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.

 

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