My Perfect Adventure: F.K. Day

The president of World Bicycle Relief tells us what he’s learned from a Zambian bike mechanic, why he wants to sail at sea, and how traveling to Sri Lanka helped him develop a mantra

Bike Valet Cubs Ride SRAM World Bicycle Relief

F.K. Day.     Photo: World Bicycle Relief

F.K. Day.

The wheel is often touted as one of the best inventions of all time. From automobiles to factory equipment and even Vanna White’s famous game show, it’s ubiquitous in most of our lives. And if F.K. Day has anything to do with it, we won’t ever take it for granted.

Day is president of World Bicycle Relief, a Chicago-based non-profit that uses the wheel—or rather two wheels—to empower people in more than 12 developing African countries. The organization’s logic is simple: In areas with poor roads and no sustainable transportation, people must often walk prohibitively long distances to reach clean water, schools, health clinics, and jobs. World Bicycle Relief provides bicycles so they can travel farther and quicker, allowing health care workers to visit more patients, students to stay in class, and employees to continue working. Compared to walking, the wheel boosts productivity and access to health care, education, and economic opportunities.

Day cofounded World Bicycle Relief after years working with the for-profit SRAM Corporation, now the world’s second-biggest bike components manufacturer, which he also founded alongside his brother after college. But World Bicycle Relief doesn’t use SRAM products. Instead, it designs bicycles specifically for the communities it seeks to help—with the durability to travel on poor roads and carry large loads. Since 2005, the charity has provided more than 115,000 bicycles and trained more than 800 field mechanics to assemble and repair them locally. Now it’s looking to raise more support and boost output with a special year-end campaign, promising to match all donations through December 31. Here, Day tells us what he’s learned from a Zambian bike mechanic, why he wants to sail at sea, and how traveling to Sri Lanka helped him develop a mantra.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
My perfect day starts outside the small village of Mwinilunga, in the Northwest Territory of Zambia on the Angola/Congo border. Here you can step over the Great Zambezi River. I have a cup of coffee in my hands and I’m watching the night sky as it fades into first light. The intricate network of footpaths begins to come alive with villagers starting their daily routines.

I ride a bicycle in the morning mist, along one of the paths leading out of town. I stop at a row of small single-room shacks made of hand-baked bricks and spend the day with Mr. Phiri, a World Bicycle Relief field mechanic. Phiri has been repairing village bikes ever since he was a child. He hangs his spare inner tubes and tires on a nail protruding from his door, unlocks a small chest of spare parts, and unrolls a towel and an oily piece of cardboard, revealing a trove of worn tools. Friends greet the familiar face as they peddle or walk by. They point at me and laugh, saying: “Good morning. How are you?” I reply: “I am fine, thank you. How are you?” We all burst into laughter, as we’ve reached the edge of our common language, and we wave goodbye.

My job today isn’t to help Phiri fix the five worn down bikes leaning against the hand-cut post of his thatched-roofed shack. My job is to understand how the bikes wear out, how they break when they fail, what spares are available, and how Phiri fixes them. My job is to learn the economics that drive his business. We work together all morning. I hand him tools or parts that he points to, taking notes on the discoveries. Some of what I learn is new; some I have seen before.

A truck rumbles by. The driver drapes his elbow over the door and stares at me until we both wave. He honks and bumps along.

For lunch, Phiri and I walk 100 meters down the dirt road, greeting each person along the way until we reach a shack with smoke escaping through the chimney. We eat a small cooked lunch, mostly Nshima, a corn-based mush dipped in ground kale and herbs. We eat with our hands and talk about Phiri’s family. He shares stories about those who have passed on from HIV/AIDS: his wife, his father, a brother, a sister, and one of his sons (whose children he now cares for). His stories are told as simple fact, but to me they are heartbreaking. Phiri lives in an area with relatively low HIV/AIDS prevalence due to tribal circumcision customs.

We return to his shop, greeting every person along the way, cupping our hands together in a low crouch or curtsy to the elders of the village. We resume our work. The tools Phiri uses are important to understand, so I inventory them and ask about their history. “Collected over many years,” he says. I can tell. He works on.

The sun slants low and bathes the interior of the small shop. The flow of people we saw this morning has reversed. The greeting and laughter continues. I help Phiri clean and pack up his shop. Of the small crumpled bills I have seen change hands, I estimate his revenue to be just under $15 for labor, spares, and patching. Later tonight I’ll study my notes and try to calculate his profit for the day. I’ll compare this to his estimates in the morning, which helps me understand what Phiri values most.

With the evening breeze comes the sweet lavender fragrance of nightshade mixed with the day’s village smells and the last dusty heat rising from the packed dirt road. Phiri and I sit outside his shop, tired, greasy armed, and caked with dust, talking about the day. A pair of headlights bounces slowly toward us. The car windows are down, hands are waving; I make out the smiling faces of my wife, Leah, and our son, Lincoln. They are returning from a day in the field, spent gathering photographs and stories. The equatorial dusk quickly releases. The beauty of the night unfolds, bringing a perfect end to the perfect day.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Anywhere. There is so much to learn. If pressed for particulars, then I would want to be in the southern ocean, off Cape Horn, in a howling storm, in a good boat, going in a sea-kindly direction, with just the right amount of sail up. I love the art of preparedness and testing it in the face of a storm. And when all fails, then I love the art of improvisation, and where the imagination can take you if calm holds under extreme pressure. To you who have sailed in those latitudes, I give you all respect, and I don’t know how I would fair, but I would try.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
Wherever my family is, that’s my favorite place to be. When it happens to be outdoors, that’s twice as good. I remember once, on Safari with Leah and Lincoln in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. I think Lincoln was about four, and we were returning late from a night drive. It was June and cold but crystal clear, and there was no moon. The sky sparkled with stars. It was us who were suspended in the night. Our son lay wrapped in a blanket, warm and enfolded in my arms. The Southern Cross shone, and at that moment, there was no better place in the world.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
Edward Curtis was an American photographer who set out around 1900 to document the vanishing Native American Indians. I admire his work because it was meaningful, and technologically advanced. It required patience, presence, and persistence. I would like to sit down with him and understand his spiritual connection with the Native American community and what drove him to dedicate his life to documenting their practices. I also see similarities between Curtis and my wife, Leah, a professional photographer. Perhaps meeting him could help me understand more about my wife.

What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
Coffee! I can live without much, but I do love coffee in the early morning when all things are possible. I also need a flashlight—I’ve got a bad thing about snakes.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
When time allows, I like to settle in and listen. Sometimes the right place is at hand, and sometimes I’ve got to walk for hours to find just that right place where I can feel the heartbeat all around. My favorites are usually open spaces, sitting on the bare ground with my back against a tree.

What motivates you in your work with World Bicycle Relief?
Reliable transportation is essential to survival. Here in the West we have so many options available to us. For an individual whose only transportation option is walking, a bicycle becomes an industrial revolution. I’m driven by the impact that this simple tool can have on individuals and their communities in the developing world.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
My parents were involved in manufacturing and product development. Aside from a brief period when I thought I wanted to be a doctor, my dream has always been to develop and manufacture products that made people’s lives better. Although I’ve lived in cities all my life, I always imagined that I’d make something to be used outside. As a child, I was given an army shovel from one of my father’s friends. An entrenching tool, I think it’s called. It was beautiful in its simplicity and effectiveness. I had it for years, and always wanted to build products like that, products that you could depend on to survive. SRAM Corp makes some of the highest performance bike products in the world, but one of the most powerful things we’ve ever done is to help bring simple, effectively designed bikes to the poorest people on earth.

When and how did you first venture into your field of work?
I’ve been in the bicycle industry for 25 years, cofounding the bicycle component manufacturer, SRAM Corp, along with my brother Stan and some friends. World Bicycle Relief was founded in 2005, immediately following the Indian Ocean Tsunami. My wife and I traveled to Indonesia and Sri Lanka to meet with relief organizations to see if large-scale bicycle programs would accelerate recovery for individuals and their families. Frequent trips to post-tsunami Sri Lanka taught us our current mantra: “All answers are found in the field.”

What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring social entrepreneur?
Anchor your mission on social impact. Empower people to help themselves, and ensure you are not doing harm to others at the same time. The worst example would be to feed the poor with food imported from the United States, thereby undermining the local farming economy and creating an environment of dependence in those you are trying to help. Also, steer toward the beacon of economic independence. This keeps focus on efficiencies, and if achieved allows your products or services to be scalable and not dependent on charity.

Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
My parents lead their lives with love and patience, and their example infuses everything that my siblings and I do. Weather it was to family, friends, or a stranger on the street, our parents showed a love and openness that attracted people of all ages around them. As a youth, following my internal compass with all of its uncertainties, twists ,and turns, I’m sure I tested my parent’s love and patience, but it never wavered. Even after I decided to leave college. I was at Tulane University, better than halfway through an undergrad degree in economics and Latin American studies, and I had just finished reading one of Ayn Rand’s more obscure books, We the Living. In the end, in classic Rand fashion, the heroine dies alone, escaping oppressive Russia with the knowledge “that all things are possible.” I closed the book, loaded my car, and left school for good. When I eventually got home and told my parents, they simply embraced me and loved me and gave me the space to sort it out before moving on. They have taught me much.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Live life with gratitude and integrity. Strive to be in love and in the service of others and never far from a good cup of coffee. These principles bring me great joy and discovery.

Have you ever made a mistake or experienced a setback that made you question your strategy at World Bicycle Relief?
Over the years, we have evolved our strategy as we learn more. I’m not sure it was a mistake or a setback, or just evolution, but here is an example of a strategy shift and why: In our very first program delivering 24,400 bikes to men, women, and children in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, all of our bikes were sourced and manufactured right there in Sri Lanka. To me, this was the ideal model of operations, because there was positive impact across the board: The bikes were designed for the target market, the technology was understandable to the user, by definition there was an installed base of spare parts and tools, and industry was boosted, which resulted in employment and knowledge.

When we shifted our focus to our first 23,000-bike program in Zambia, we set off to replicate that model of local sourcing and manufacturing. The first thing we did in Zambia was to test all the leading, locally available bikes (there was no bike manufacturing in Zambia) to see how they would last in the field. We took these bikes and gave them to select people in the rural areas who we knew would fairly represent the type of riding and usage that all of the bikes would see. What we found was appalling. By the end of just the first week, all of the bikes were experiencing some form of failure, and by the end of the first month, the bikes were in shambles: brakes, peddles, spokes, chains, and seats were broken, and the list went on.

When I want back to the merchants that sold these bikes to me, they all declared that their bikes were the best in the market and the end user didn’t care. There was only one group (Tata) that, when confronted with the problem, responded: “We had no idea our bikes were so bad. Can you help us improve?” For the next four years, we worked with these guys, starting with the design, then manufacturing, then assembly of their bikes, going over a long list of priorities on how to improve them and their supplier base. In the end, we had taken them as far as they could go, and the bikes were stronger, higher quality, and more reliable than anything available. But unfortunately, we needed them to be better. In retrospect, maybe we lost time by trying so hard to improve the existing supply chain instead of just starting from scratch and doing it right the first time. But I am glad we did it the way we did. At least we tried.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I’d love to develop a line of hardcore outdoor gear. Hardware or soft goods, doesn’t matter. It would be fun to experiment and test and evolve a design. I love that moment when something finally really works well for its intended use, and you can sit back and say, “That is so cool!” And in the field of hardcore outdoor gear, you’re either addressing some danger (hot/cold) or some performance enhancer that can stand on its own merit and might not need the vagaries of what’s in style. I’ve got no style—I had to marry into style.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Write a book. Though I don’t know the topic and don’t have the discipline ... or skill.

Sail around the world solo. But I love my family, job, and being with people, so I can’t imagine trading that.

Stay put long enough to acclimate to a single time zone. Though I’d probably get antsy.

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