Interview: Mozambikes (2012)

“WJF was so amazing is that it was broad enough and yet specific enough to allow Mozambikes to shine…Presenting one’s business in front of some of the world’s prominent social business thinkers was a really great exercise, and we really enjoyed the questions from the audience. “

– Lauren Thomas, Mozambikes

The Mozambikes team is seeking to build a bicycle industry and make bicycles a commodity in Mozambique. They offer quality bicycles at a standard cost across all retail locations, regardless of proximity to an urban center, so that people can afford to buy a product that can improve their quality of life.

Mozambikes won the Africa Prize and took second place in the 2012 William James Foundation Venture Phase Competition.

Erin Jones spoke with Lauren Thomas about Mozambikes and its recent endeavors.

Where are you located? 

Mozambiques Limitada is located in Maputo, Mozambique. Our nonprofit affiliate is located out of the United States.

What problem is Mozambikes trying to solve?

We are trying to improve lives in Mozambique through affordable and efficient transportation and build a bicycle industry to accomplish that.

How did you become interested in this problem? 

My business partner Rui Mesquita and I were living in Mozambique for about a year when we went on a road trip through Mozambique, and could not ignore the vast number of people that walked very long distances with heavy loads on their heads under the hot sun. As people who have traveled through Europe and Asia, we became interested in why bicycles were not more prevalent in Mozambique. When we began researching why that is, we found some distressing fundamentals in the bicycle industry and we wanted to address them.

What is your solution to the problem?

The two big problems in Mozambique are the quality of bicycles and the price. The bicycles are brought in by traders and are as cheap as possible, which means they are as cheap in quality as possible. And yet, due to transport costs and trader margins, they are still too expensive for the people who really need them. Mozambikes offers publicity, by that I mean we brand our bicycles with the colors and logos of businesses here in Mozambique, offering businesses an innovative corporate social responsibility plan as well as a neat advertising scheme. This allows us to sell the bicycles on the backend at reduced rates or those companies buy the final bicycles and give them out to their stakeholders in various initiatives, mainly Mozambicans who are important recipients anyway.

Who are your customers?

There are two kinds of customers. One is the customer for the branding of bicycles, which allows us to sell the bicycles at reduced rates. Those customers would either advertise on the bicycles or buy the final branded bicycles. They would be advertising companies like consumer products businesses, banks, or any other local businesses that have a need to purchase bicycles for employees, communities, client retention ventures, or bonuses. We’re learning new ways that people use bicycles every time we speak with a new client. The second type of customer is the bicycle user, who purchases the bicycle to travel in Mozambique, transport crops to market, or bring their children to the clinic on the weekends, which significantly improves his or her quality of life.

What are some of your major challenges? 

We offer a new form of advertising. There is a precedent for moving ads on buses and on the sides of taxis, but these forms of advertising cannot reach rural Mozambicans, like bicycles can. While there is a huge potential for bicycles to be used as an advertising channel, it is still new and current advertising budgets are not allocated toward those new tools. Often we get pushed toward CSR managers, and CSR managers are used to doing something that is 100% social in nature, for instance building a school, which is a beautiful act, but doesn’t contribute to business. Whereas the bicycles are not only CSR, but they are also economically impactful for a business in the form of advertising. We struggle with finding the right place for it to fit within a company’s budget.

How many people do you employ?

We employ 10 people right now.

Has the William James Foundation competition and mentoring program helped you on your way?

First of all, we won some prize money in this past year, which was an an important boost in our ability to cover month-to-month expenses while gaining new clients and beginning some exciting initiatives that are not necessarily income-generating, such as a proposal to build a bicycle lane network in Maputo, which we’re currently working on. In addition, the in-kind prizes we received have been invaluable. We’re working with WorldWays and ChangeMatters. WorldWays is helping us to launch a marketing and advertising campaign that we had desperately needed, and ChangeMatters is assisting us in fundraising. We have almost entirely bootstrapped financing to date—and so we hope that they can bring us in some attractive funding.

What other resources have you found that are particularly useful for social entrepreneurs?

We were finalists in the Cartier Women’s Business Initiative. We liked that event because it focused on women (and not enough competitions do) and because it was geographically diverse and not limited to any one sector of any sort of industry. While there is so much philanthropic capital out there, it is very nichey. One reason why the William James Foundation competition was amazing is that it was broad enough and yet specific enough to allow Mozambikes to shine. Cartier was another one of those organizations that had a similar mandate.

For readers who want to know more about what you’re up to, where can we send them? Join us Facebook or Twitter, where we post pictures, interesting news, and all of our updates. 

Also, keep an eye out for an upcoming CNN Africa story, as they were just in our office filming two weeks ago.

Anything else you’d like the William James Foundation community to know?

There are so many things. We had such an amazing time at the William James Foundation’s annual event—presenting one’s business in front of some of the world’s most prominent social business thinkers was a great exercise, and we really enjoyed the questions from the audience. We enjoyed all the sessions we got to participate in beforehand, especially the breakout session with the “cycling gang,” which was fun because we got to meet other social entrepreneurs out there using bicycles for their innovative solutions. We’re already helping each other get connected to some other potentially helpful industry players. We had a great time, and of course were thrilled to be recognized as one of the winners.