Enter St Erica of the Rickshaw

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The Independent Online
Whenever the university student Chris Bath gets into his rickshaw to pedal tourists round Oxford, he is making a poor family in India happy. That is because Chris's employer - Erica Steinhauer, the "rickshaw wallah" of Oxford - has put her money where her mouth is.

Since Easter her 16 rickshaws have been plying their trade in the city of dreaming spires, but Ms Steinhauer said: "My real long-term ambition is to become the patron saint of rickshaw drivers." To achieve this, Ms Steinhauer is tithing 10 per cent of pre-tax profits to improve the lot of the Indian rickshaw driver.

Her first step was to build a better rickshaw. "In India the technology is 50 or 60 years old," she said. "There are no gears and poor brakes - it's a very hard living, sweating under monstrous conditions. I brought the cab from India but redesigned it. The chassis was built in Birmingham. It has 21 gears and disc brakes. I've halved the weight."

Next came the job of persuading her main investor that the Oxford Rickshaw Company should operate a tithing scheme. "After we got the bank loan, we had a big celebratory lunch that cost pounds 60 and I wanted to talk about tithing, but agreed to wait until we made a profit. But then I woke up that night and thought, 'That's how it happens: you leave it until you make a profit and then you find another reason not to do it.' So I rang him up again and said 'we're doing it'. He said he thought it was ridiculous and that 10 per cent was too much. But I pointed out that we had just eaten half a rickshaw for lunch."

More food for thought came from the Bridge Foundation - a charity working in India to provide loans to the poorest of the poor. Its smallest loan was pounds 5 for a bucket (a big one to make lemonade in). Among the largest have been 5,000 rupees (pounds 92) for a bicycle rickshaw.

"A bicycle rickshaw is a leisurely way to see the sights in Oxford but it can mean a real living in India," said Will Day of Opportunity Trust in Oxford, which supports the Bridge Foundation.

From Bangalore, James Solomon of the foundation said: "A driver can earn between 900 and 1,500 rupees per month, which is sufficient to provide a family of five with two meals a day and two sets of clothing a year and a two-roomed thatched house." Mr Day said: "Every time we see a rickshaw pedal past here, we give a cheer."

Ms Steinhauer would prefer any rickshaws bought with the loans not to be a misery to pedal. She realises, however, that it is not practical to supply her rickshaws to India.

This is where the Gandhi Foundation comes in. "The foundation is creating a gearing system that fits on to rickshaws that can be made in India. So with any luck we might be able to use our money to help organise a technology transfer."

All of this is being watched carefully from Madras and Delhi. "I have become a celebrity in India. I am 'that rickshaw woman in Oxford'. There is lots of laughing and snickering. Now we've even been lampooned in a cartoon."

Can sainthood be far behind?