Post image for Biking To Work To Sell Charcoal

Biking To Work To Sell Charcoal

by Tom on May 18, 2010 · 8 comments

in Cyclists,Mozambique

In America, May is Bike Month, and this week is Bike to Work Week. More than half of Americans live within five miles of their workplace, and this annual May focus on cycling is intended to be a spring motivator to get more cyclists riding.

I ride to work. I ride despite the fact that my route is filled with car traffic (and construction to prepare roads to carry more traffic), and despite the four storey parking garage at work having space for just six bicycles, and my workplace, on top of a large hill, having no showers or changing room. Still, I ride to work, and if you can, you should too. Even just sometimes.

On the way home, there’s a beaver pond tucked in behind the low income housing projects. It’s pretty, though I have never seen the beaver. Maybe he does not like the fact that I always call out “Hey, Mister Beaver! Where are you?” as I ride past. Still, as long as I keep riding, I know I’ll see him some day.

But this Bike to Work Week, while pondering what to blog about, riding through the traffic, and down the trail by the pond, it was the charcoal sellers of Mozambique that I kept coming back to.

If you’ve ever driven in rural Africa, this is probably a sight you have seen. Men (and they usually are men) headed into a town or a market to try to sell charcoal (or firewood or sugar cane or poles or other things, but very often charcoal.)


Cooking with charcoal is a widespread practice in many poor countries because, although it de-forests the countryside, fouls the air, and leads to a high rate of pediatric burn accidents, it’s also a cheap and readily available fuel that provides slow, even heat to cook on.

Bringing heavy awkward goods like a bag or two of charcoal to market is the kind of small-scale economic activity that is suddenly made possible when you have a bicycle.

In Nampula, Mozambique where these photos were taken, a bag of charcoal sells for about four US dollars.

In March I met Antonio (right, in grey) and his friends, who had ridden into the middle of Nampula by the main Sunday market. It was late in the day and they still had not sold all their charcoal. Antonio was doing better than his friend, he had sold one of two bags he brought in from the countryside. He showed me how he had added two struts to his locally-built rack to help support the load on his Neelam bike.

So what’s the connection here? Why post about Antonio during Bike to Work week? I guess because I’ve been thinking a lot about how the whole cycling movement in America is a transition out of cars. We’ve over-committed to cars, and we’re trying to dial it back. It will be hard, but we’re making slow progress.

Meanwhile, in many places, maybe in most of the world, people like Antonio are just barely getting by. For many, a bicycle is a big step up. It opens a world of opportunity – to move goods to market, to get to the clinic, to go to school. That’s powerful, and getting bicycles to people who need them is a movement I’m excited to be a part of.

But at the same time, I wonder–beyond just getting bikes in the hands of riders–can we help those emerging economies learn from our mistakes? Will Antonio’s children grow up in a Nampula, Mozambique that is gradually filling with cars, as the middle class emerges? Or is a different vision possible, and evolved vision, where bikes don’t get crowded out by “progress?”

Charcoal as a primary cooking fuel – by all means let’s move beyond that. And I hope Antonio’s children will have more than he has. In no way do I mean to romanticize his life, which is doubtless very difficult and lacks what we would consider basic necessities. But Antonio’s Mozambique is changing. Today it’s filled with bicycles, as I have documented in other posts. And tomorrow? What will progress look like? As the economy matures, and standards of living rise, will there still be space for bicycles?

I hope there will always be space for bicycles.

•  •  •

(This is part of a series of Bikejuju posts about bicycles in Mozambique. Find all the Mozambique posts here. Or more broadly, all the Bikejuju African bike posts are here.)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim K May 19, 2010 at 12:11 am

Nice thoughtful stuff, Tom. Very appropriate for bike to work week, in my opinion. Seems like it’s all related to balance. A worthy goal, no matter where you are on the political-social-economic-environmental spectrum(s).

Eli W May 19, 2010 at 7:09 am

Excellent post. I think that the issue comes down to money. The world’s fuel supplies are running out and green energy is still far from where it needs to be. Fuel prices will only go up. As cars become more expensive to run, an alternative will increasingly be needed. Those that have enough money and who live in countries where energy is available will switch to electric cars. Everyone else will ride bicycles.

As a Boston resident, I love to imagine how much more pleasant city life will be without cars filling the streets. Mayor Menino says, “the car is no longer King in Boston.” If he actually believes that, he’s completely wrong.

Millie May 25, 2010 at 11:44 am

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