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7th April 2015

How motorcycles are saving families in Africa

Welcome to sub-Saharan Africa, where innovative health care isn’t always about cutting-edge medical technology. It’s just as likely to be about having a reliable motorcycle.

In this respect, UK-based charity Riders for Health is leading the way. Ex-motorbike racer Andrea Coleman and her husband Barry set up Riders in the 1980s to help people in remote communities get access to the tests, medicines, vaccinations and health education they desperately need. They do this by training health workers to carry out daily maintenance on their motorcycles, which are often the only way that they can cross the treacherous terrain to reach their patients. “It’s a really boring thing, but it’s vital. It brings order to chaos because of lack of transportation,” says Andrea.

In Africa, people ride their motorcycles into the ground and then they have to rely on their own two feet. “Vehicles cost lots of money and we don’t want to waste money. We look at managing transport differently by maintaining an asset. Our riders are asset managers,” explains Andrea. “If health workers know their motorcycle won’t break down, there’s a greater sense of responsibility. On foot, they’ll only walk five to ten miles. On motorcycles, they can go five times further and be much more productive. Without them, mums die in childbirth and children don’t get vaccinated,” she adds.

What if all the people in London, Paris & Berlin couldn’t get health care?

Of the 12 million people the organisation helps (that’s roughly the population of London, Paris and Berlin combined1), mothers-to-be and children are the most vulnerable. “Mums need to know they’ll not walk six hours to get to an appointment, only to find out that the health worker didn’t make it because the vehicle broke down. There’s a huge connection between health care and predictability,” Andrea comments.

One of the main activities of health workers is taking samples to test for HIV and other diseases like tuberculosis. “If you’re pregnant and you have HIV, you want to get on a medical regime as early as possible so you don’t pass it on to your baby or die yourself,” she says. “We’ve managed to cut the diagnosis time from five weeks to about three or four days.”

What’s it like in the field?

The so-called “riders” are health care professionals trained by health ministries across seven African countries. Although the health workers deal with everything from ear infections to antenatal care to vaccination programmes, preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV is a major part of their job.

The charity’s Country Director in Lesotho, Mahali Hlasa, says that “a main focus is to make sure everyone gets tested and we get the results on time.” A former rider herself, Mahali has seen a significant increase in the number of samples transported every year since Riders launched a motorcycle courier service for patient specimens in the country.

“Because we now get the results within a week, we can follow up and start treatment for those who have tested positive, and we can take regular samples.”  Before the courier service was established, only about 3% of health centres gave patients their test results within a week.

One of the current riders in Lesotho, Mamochaka Ramochele, says she loves her job. “It’s more than just taking medicines to patients. We go out in teams and take samples, teach children hand washing techniques, educate people on infection control and the importance of taking their medicines on time, and provide counselling sessions. For HIV positive teenagers, we create sport and make sure they lead normal lives. We help the community. If there were no riders, it would be impossible to reach these villages. It would be misery for these people as they would just be neglected,” she says.

1.City Mayors, Europe’s largest cities