The fleet of bikers changing health care in Africa

A former motorcycle racer – and now Woman of the Year – is revolutionising medical provision across the continent

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The Independent Online

When Andrea Coleman bought her first motorbike six months before her 16th birthday all she wanted to do was escape her “funny little suburb” outside London.

Now, almost fifty years later, she is being credited with using bikes to revolutionise Africa’s transport and health systems.

The mother-of-three will receive the Barclays Women of the Year award at the 59th annual Women of the Year Lunch tomorrow – where she will join the likes of Fern Britton, Olivia Colman, Sheila Hancock, Sally Philips and Doreen Lawrence in London.

But Coleman is not your usual global health pioneer. She left school at 16-years-old and did not sit one academic exam until her 40s. She gained notoriety in Britain in the early 1970s when, as one of only a few female racers, she took to the tracks in Chelsea FC colour-coordinated leathers.

Now, she wants us to “rethink the way we are going to do development. Too much of it has been, ‘I really don’t like the way you have to live, so I am going to raise all this money and give you this thing.’ But it has to be a partnership, a conversation. It has got to be done differently,” she says.

And people are listening. Coleman’s plans to found a social enterprise blossomed after she swapped the race tracks for Sub-Saharan Africa’s dirt tracks in the late eighties. When she saw how broken-down vehicles were preventing women from accessing healthcare, she realised that maintaining fleets of motorbikes in the region could change lives.

Now, Riders for Health – the social enterprise she founded with her husband Barry Coleman - employs 400 staff worldwide and operates 1700 vehicles across seven countries in Africa, transforming healthcare for 14 million people.

Partners – such as governments or NGOs –pay the organisation to provide and run their vehicles, as well as to train the drivers to maintain them . The statistics are impressive: mobilised health workers can reach 6 times as many people than those on foot, doubling the time they spend in communities. An estimated 2.9m more people interacted with health workers last year as a result of the motorbikes.

Of their vehicles, the vast majority are the two-wheeled variety, all of which are maintained and driven by health workers - many of whom are women. The organisation is in charge of all The Gambia’s national fleet of health care vehicles, including 38 four-wheeled ambulances. Many of the Muslim women health workers there put on their overalls and boots over their traditional dress.

But despite their success, Coleman readily admits that transport is not the sexiest topic when it comes to global health. She says her organisation represents “the greasy hands, practical part of medicine,” but argues that logistics are essential: “You’ve got to maintain things, you’ve got to be able to reach people, and you’ve got to know what things cost.”

She adds: “We didn’t know anything about global health when we started. I didn’t do an international development degree, or anything like that, but we do something really practical. There no point spending billions of dollars developing a new drug when you can’t get it to the person who needs it.”

Transport is what Riders for Health does best. In The Gambia, three times more patients were referred from health centres to hospitals by Riders-managed ambulances in 2011. In Lesotho, their motorcycle courier service cut the time taken for test results to be returned to health centres by over half.  The organisation is working to strengthen health systems and amongst other things, it is working to prevent and control malaria, fight against HIV/Aids and TB, as well as getting pregnant women to hospital more quickly.

Coleman never thought she would do what she has. Born into a family of motorcyclists, she married Northern Irish Grand Prix motorcycle racer Tom Herron, whom she then went on to manage. The pair had twin daughters Kim and Zoe in 1976, but two-and-a-half-years later, Herron was killed in a motorbike accident.

It changed Coleman’s life overnight. “One minute you’ve got this life, charging about, driving around, managing teams and managing your girls and then all of a sudden, it kind of stops,” she said. “You don’t know how you’re going to explain it or what it’s going to mean for these children.”

But after agreeing to work for racer Randy Mamola and raising funds for a children’s charity, she visited Zimbabwe to see where the money was being spent. After seeing a man push his pregnant wife to hospital in a wheelbarrow, she realised money alone was not enough.  Together with Barry, now her husband, she established Riders for Health, establishing a cost-effective system to maintain vehicles, wherever they are.

Despite her anger at the-then “shabby” safety measures of the industry that took her first husband, she now resumes a close link with the motorcycling world.Riders for Health raising about a quarter of their income from an annual fundraising day held at Silverstone. Italian champion Valentino Rossi has raised around a quarter of a million pounds for them on his own.

“In a way, this is what I’m most proud of,” Coleman says. “It’s the only sport I know of that’s created a kind of movement. It’s used what’s in it to change people’s lives.”

But it took time to convince some African governments that they should pay for organisation’s services. The social enterprise, which is 46 per cent self-sustainable, only gives their services away for free if its working with communities that have no way of generating income. For example, when working with groups of HIV positive women in rural areas. Any profits made from commercial services are ploughed back into the organisation.

“We can’t train people in the developed world just to hand over money and we can’t train people in places like Africa and India to be donor-dependent – it’s a bad thing,” Coleman said. “Social enterprise is a model for the way people should do business. We are tackling something no one else wants to do and unless we make it pay for itself in the long run, it will probably go back to not being done again.”

She is not short of supporters. Baroness Helena Kennedy, President of Woman of the Year, described her as “worthy” and “inspirational.” She added that through “sheer hard work and determination” she has “translated her life-long passion as a motorcyclist into a successful award winning programme.”