As small charities go, the South Somerset-based Prodigal Bikes is pretty special. It works on several different levels.
Its goal is to take in unwanted mountain bikes, do them up and send them, along with spares and tools, to rural Africa, enhancing people’s lives through improving access to education, trade and wider communities. Added to that is the twin aim of working together with people in this area, who are on Community Payback programmes or are disengaged, refurbishing the bikes ready to be sent out to Africa.
The charity’s founder Anthony Raybould, 46, said: “We give them a taste of working hands-on in an engineering discipline, with a view to them pursuing education and careers in related professions. There is also the huge boost and sense of fulfilment in knowing their work is benefiting poor people in Africa.”
I meet Anthony in the charity’s tiny nerve centre: his garage in Merriott, near Crewkerne, having been alerted to Prodigal Bikes’ existence by the ‘green token’ collection scheme in the town’s Waitrose. The whole premise seemed such a brilliant idea, I had to find out more. (Incidentally, the Waitrose donation amounted to £414).
When I arrive, Anthony’s tinkering about in his garage with the radio on. It’s a Friday, which means he’s not at Leonardo (formerly Westlands) in Yeovil, where he’s worked as an aircraft engineer since he was eighteen. He’s now there as a contractor and on his days off, he’s hard at work mending bikes.
The charity was formed last year but his interest started back in 2007 when Anthony was a lay reader for the Church of England. He’d taken a service in Lopen and got chatting to a man called Stephen Crane, who was collecting a few bikes for Jole Rider, a charity based in Tetbury that sends bikes to The Gambia.
“I love cycling,” Anthony says. “And I like mending things. As an engineer, I thought I could get involved in this. So Stephen and I initially collected and refurbished 20 bikes for them.”
Bicycles are often bought by people who fully intend to get fit and use them, only to languish in a garage, out of sight and out of mind. In 2014, some 3.6 million bikes were bought in the UK but only one in seven is used regularly.
As soon as people heard about the local collection, Anthony and Stephen were inundated with unwanted bikes The two of them ran beer and bike nights, where friends enjoyed banter while they fixed bikes destined for Africa. They restored a total of one hundred and fifty bikes, which joined the same number again in Hullavington, Wiltshire, stacked up like a game of Tetrus in a container, ready to go off to The Gambia.
Says Anthony: “There are schools there but often no bus for children to get there or it breaks down. Kids have to travel long distances. Africa mostly doesn’t have its own, indigenous bicycle manufacturers and relies on cheap Chinese imports. Western bikes are really appreciated because they’re good quality and supplied by Jole Rider free of charge.”
In 2009/2010, Anthony collected around 350 bikes for Jole Rider, and worked with inmates at Cardiff Prison refurbishing them. “You could see how proud the prisoners were of what they’d done and that the end result was going to Africa. It was then that I thought ‘I’m on to something here’. In the meantime, Ken Clarke was saying some interesting things about a Government scheme called Transforming Rehabilitation. Part of this was helping charities work with people during their time in prisons and following release, with the specific aim of helping ex-offenders towards stable, self-sustaining lives and away from crime. I began to realise how the work I was doing with Jole Rider, and my background as an engineer could fit in with this.
“There is something like a ten to thirteen billion pound cost to the UK economy of people re-offending. But if you put a prisoner in a box with nothing for years on end, it’s no surprise that when they come out, they struggle to get work, and re-offend.”
But then his ideas were put on hold for a while as the married father of two got stuck into a major extension at his home.
“In about 2015, I wanted to get this back on track. I put it to Jole Rider, who said it was a great idea but suggested I do it under my own banner.”
He came up with the name Prodigal Bikes, from the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke Ch.15 vs.11-32). Anthony could see parallels in the Bible story of the father prepared to take his lost son back into the family fold and a society prepared to give ex-offenders another chance.
“It was all about society extending that grace,” Anthony says. “And then last year, I was driving to work one morning and I said, ‘let’s do this’. Soon after, I spoke to some graduate trainees at Leonardo and ended up being picked as their charity to support for 12 months, so all of a sudden I had 26 graduates wanting to work with us! We had a bike workshop running at Leonardo and a number of fundraising events were held including a sponsored bike ride and an African Night in Merriott. We got registered charity status in December, too”
Some 150 bikes now look set to be heading for Kenya in January, with around 300 per year planned after that. The workshop working with ex-offenders is planned for early next year, too.
Prodigal Bikes hopes to team up with the Akamba Aid Fund, an independent charitable trust based in South Somerset, which was set up with the aim of enabling the poorest rural communities in Eastern Kenya to have access to the essentials of life that we take for granted.
Registered with the Charity Commission in 2000, Akamba helps hundreds of families with affordable healthcare and education, as well as setting up community self-help groups enabling people to use their own land and resources more effectively. Its trustees regularly travel to Kenya (at their own expense), living with the local communities, to discuss and monitor the various aid programmes Akamba has developed with them, and to ensure that funds donated are used wisely.
Says Anthony: “Getting out to Kenya is difficult for us at Prodigal Bikes, with all we have going on in the UK, so we needed to partner up with another charity with a good track record of operating in Africa. We feel very privileged to work alongside Akamba and hope we can develop this into a substantial aid programme in the coming years.”
Not all bikes received by Prodigal Bikes are sent to Africa. Says Anthony: “Bikes in poor condition are still useful to us as we can take them apart and use the remaining good parts as spares for other bikes. High value bikes are also useful to us, to overhaul and sell, to further help towards the shipping costs.”
How you can help? Prodigal Bikes need bikes that will carry children of 8 years old up to adults off road, such as mountain bikes, hybrids and old ‘sit up and beg’ type bikes, rather than racing bikes or small children’s bikes.
If you live in or close to the South Somerset area, and have a suitable bike you would like to donate, please email Anthony Raybould at firstname.lastname@example.org with a description of the bike (type of bike, make, model, condition) and your contact details. The charity will be in touch to arrange collection.
Bike donors are invited to also donate £10 per bike towards the cost of shipping to Africa.
It costs Prodigal Bikes around £5,000 to send a 20ft container full of bikes, tools and spares to Africa, so any donations, or proceeds from fund raising events, are gratefully received.