Spokes of Self-Sufficiency

by Chris Easterly

International business majors Vaughn Spethmann ’07 and Dustin McBride ’07 traveled to Zambia on an APU Focus International missions trip in 2004.

On their last day, Spethmann took a bicycle ride outside Lusaka, the country’s capital. As his borrowed bike rattled along the dusty roads, he saw a community plagued by inefficient transportation and poor road infrastructure. Vehicles couldn’t access rural areas, the sick had difficulty reaching clinics, and locals lacked work. Though bicycles helped, most were in disrepair and unreliable.

Compelled to Make a Difference

After returning to the U.S., Spethmann and McBride felt compelled to help the people of Zambia. “While journaling one day, God’s Spirit led me to write about that bike ride and impressed upon me that we needed to start a bike company there,” said Spethmann. By launching a Zambian-based bicycle company, they could create jobs and improve lives through reliable transportation. This enterprising idea took their lives in an unexpected direction. “We both wanted to try other businesses for a few years, then pick up this bike idea down the road with more experience,” McBride said. “But God continued to put this crazy idea for bikes in Africa in front of us. It’s almost like we had no choice.”

To make their vision a reality, they needed expertise. A family friend referred them to Daryl Funk, a Colorado-based bike manufacturer who had designed a custom bicycle for the developing world. Inspired by their passion, Funk joined their fledgling enterprise. In 2007, after gathering donations from friends and family, they purchased their first shipment of bicycle frames from a distributor in Taiwan. Toting tents and backpacks, Spethmann, McBride, and Funk flew to Zambia and camped out near Lusaka, awaiting the frames. Once they arrived, they hired a few locals to assemble the bikes. Under Funk’s supervision, the team began building and selling the bikes out of the back of the shipping container.

Source of Opportunity

As word spread, demand for the high-quality, locally produced bicycles grew. Today, their unlikely business—Zambikes—has become a vibrant source of opportunity in a struggling country. The company employs more than 50 people, including bike mechanics, construction workers for new facilities, and a small sales team.

In a country where the average daily salary is $2 (U.S.), Zambikes partners with local microfinance organizations to help individuals secure loans to buy bicycles. Nonprofit organizations also purchase the bikes and distribute them to teachers, pastors, and health care workers.

In addition to bicycles, the company produces an ambulance trailer that can hitch to a bike and transport patients to clinics—a vital service for people who need immediate care, such as women in labor. Zambikes estimates that up to 20 lives a month are saved per trailer. They recently shipped 600 trailers to health care organizations around the country. Zambikes also produces a cart that allows vendors to increase their income by transporting larger loads of goods, such as chickens, goats, coal, and handmade products.

To duplicate Zambikes’ success, McBride and Spethmann created a nonprofit organization called Acirfa* (“Africa” spelled backward, reflecting their vision to “turn Africa around, one bike at a time”). Acirfa provides start-up capital and professional consultancy to help launch transportation-related businesses in other African countries. So far, organizations in Uganda, Ghana, and Mozambique have expressed interest in creating their own version of Zambikes.

Joining Forces—Near and Far

As McBride and Spethmann oversee operations in Zambia, two other APU alumnae manage Acirfa’s headquarters in Irvine, California. Business finance major Jessica Congelliere ’07 handles marketing, and international business major Adrienne Rouse ’06 manages the organization’s finances.

Looking back, both Spethmann and McBride credit their APU experience with preparing them for a venture like Acirfa. “President Wallace’s business ethics class taught me so much about handling tough ethical situations,” said McBride. “I’ve faced plenty since graduating, and I think back on it frequently. I also worked with international students, and that prepared me for working alongside people from other cultures.”

Spethmann remembers the influence of his business professor Roger Conover, Ph.D. “He inspired me to think and then do, not just sit and wait,” he said.

Today, the two California natives live year-round in Lusaka. Spethmann started a pig farm, and McBride invested in a restaurant. Their goal is to eventually be off Acirfa’s payroll and support themselves through their local enterprises. “It’s about investing in the community we’re in,” said McBride.

That community-oriented mindset reflects Acirfa’s goal to create fully African-funded, -owned, and -managed organizations not dependent on foreign aid. Their first venture is well on its way: Zambikes just hired its first Zambian CFO, APU alumnus Wankunda Mutala, MBA ’08. In 2010, the company that started six years ago with little more than two young guys and a bold idea will purchase its first shipment of new bicycle frames completely from profit.

For more information about Zambikes, visit www.zambikes.org. For more information about Acirfa, visit www.akerfa.org. To view a film about Zambikes, visit www.apu.edu/stories/dmcbride/.

Chris Easterly is a freelance writer living in San Dimas, California. cteast00@yahoo.com

  • Since the publication of this article, the non-profit Acirfa has been renamed to Akerfa