As I walk from my lodgings to the cafe where I will meet with Caleb Spear of Portal Bikes, all around me the sprawling city of Kathmandu goes about its daily business in loud, chaotic motion. Cars, motorcycles, and antiquated buses zoom past, honking loudly and kicking up clouds of dust and exhaust that will remain trapped in the Kathmandu valley, helping make the capital of Nepal one of the most polluted cities in the world.
Along the road I see Nepalis about their daily lives, washing clothes, shelling kernels from sun-dried corncobs, and carrying boxes, sacks, and even propane tanks balanced precariously on the backs of motorcycles, bikes, and backs. The road itself is dusty and marred by cracks and potholes, some the evidence of insufficient maintenance and others testimony to the lasting impact of the massive earthquake that shook Nepal just less than a year ago.
Spear has been in Nepal and working for solutions to the difficulties facing the country since 2013, when he founded Portal Bikes as a non-profit in Colorado and as a Private Limited Company in Nepal (more on this interesting designation later). It was before then, though, when he was still studying for his degree from Colorado College, that he developed his drive to enact change through development.
Spear was initially interested in studying medicine, but his research into development in Tibet opened his eyes to deeper issues challenging health than those a doctor could remedy. “There is a huge proliferation of Rickets [in Tibet] because babies don’t get Vitamin D, and it simply requires that mom knows that she should set her little naked baby in the sun a few hours? That seemed like a pretty silly thing to treat as a primary care provider when you could take the social and cultural approach.”
So Spear decided to travel to Nepal in 2006 and see for himself what the needs of people were on the ground. “One of the things that really stood out was the profound amount of time that people in developing nations spent transporting themselves, transporting goods, doing simple tasks…” That is where it all began. Spear watched a family “clear a field by hand, plant a field by hand, harvest a field by hand, dry the corn by hand, and they spent days shelling corn, and I went down to help for thirty minutes, and my thumbs are raw and I’m in pain, and I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous. There are already solutions for things like this.’”
For Spear, the solution was in “the most incredible invention the world has ever known,” the bicycle. The idea took inspiration from two other NGOs – World Bicycle Relief and Maya Pedal – that respectively work with bikes as transportation and as productive machines. Spear “merged transportation and productivity” into the product that Portal Bikes sells today.
The sky blue long-tail bikes that Portal Bikes designed are able to efficiently transport large amounts of cargo and become that rotating power behind simple, time-saving machines. Portal Bikes has already developed machines that can pump water, shell corn, generate electricity, and more. They continue to develop machines to hook up to the bike – they are currently working on improving the design for an attachable clothes washer.
Portal Bikes brings an intriguing approach in bringing their bikes to the people of Nepal. As written above, Portal Bikes is not an NGO in Nepal. They sell the bikes. As Spear explains it, “I really value this idea that you as an individual have said, ‘I’m going to take this loan, I’m going to take this risk, and I’m going to buy something better for me.’” Portal Bikes uses a mixture of sales, subsidies, and micro loans to make their bicycles available to people. As Spear sees it, they are doing more than helping people save time on transportation and daily tasks. Bicycle recipients are “building confidence, building pride, building business acumen, and I think that at the end of this process… the pride and confidence that ‘I can do this!’ is almost more valuable than the actual bicycle.”
To just show up and be doling cash out was not our model. – Caleb Spear
It should also be mentioned that at least one reason for their designation in Nepal as a private company is based in Nepalese government policy. International organizations seeking the NGO moniker in Nepal face a veritable mountain of strict restrictions and requirements. Beyond extensive paperwork, donation requirements, and heaps of red tape, “you’re not allowed to work directly with the people you’re trying to serve. You have to work with local NGOs, so there’s this layer of corruption and detachment and difficulty there.”
Portal Bikes therefore works as a kind of hybrid as a non-profit in the US and a private company in Nepal. That said, it is not a profit-seeking venture. Donations to the Portal Bikes non-profit and any profits go toward covering costs and manufacturing and financing bicycles as well as other projects.
These projects have expanded significantly since the earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015. Then, as the world watched in horror at the toll the earthquake took on people and buildings with monsoon season only weeks away, Spear and Portal Bikes stepped in to do what they could to help the unsheltered and unprepared. While the cargo bikes proved useful in the initial days after the disaster in transporting clean water, tarps, and people, “within just a few days we realized that [the need for] shelter was huge.” Portal Bikes used its connections with local hardware shops, its manufacturing experience, and the materials it had on hand to build an adapted form of a WWII-era Nissen Hut.
In the end, they were very successful, selling more than 5,400 shelters to scores of organizations and training dozens more how to build the adapted shelters themselves. While those organizations provided a lot of the legwork in finding the people and places most in need of shelter, Portal Bikes “lowered the barrier of entry for them… and allowed those individuals and organizations to actually focus on getting the shelter out to the people who needed it.”
After the success of the temporary shelter project, Portal Bikes has since moved on to a project creating permanent, earthquake-resistant pre-fabricated housing. While the project has faced difficulty in getting through the “multiple layers of government bureaucracy,” inefficiency, and ineptitude, Spear is optimistic that the project will eventually get off the ground.
Beyond the constant matter of government incompetence, Portal Bikes is challenged by Nepal’s isolation and lack of manufacturing infrastructure. It took more than five months for an order of basic welding supplies to arrive in Kathmandu. Meanwhile, electricity is unstable. When they purchased a generator to resolve the issue, the months-long blockade by India rendered it useless by making diesel impossible to obtain.
I love the grassroots organization that grew up around our shelters, and I love it when that can be fostered and supported globally. – Caleb Spear
And what can you do to help? Spear encourages people to become involved and connected with organizations doing good work. And as for donating, Portal Bike’s supply chain is so uncertain right now that donated bicycles will not be able to be fulfilled until sometime down the line. For now, follow them on social media. Follow the story. Stay connected to what is happening and watch for your opportunity to make a difference.
Note: Pictures provided by Portal Bikes
(Author: Dylan Kolhoff)