Photograph courtesy David Schweidenback
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Pedals for Progress founder David Schweidenback (right) loads a shipping container bound for overseas. He's exported 150,000 donated bikes and 3,600 sewing machines to 38 countries.

Photograph courtesy David Schweidenback

Giving Old Machines New Life

Pedals for Progress repurposes old bicycles and sewing machines, turning them into transportation and jobs in 38 developing countries.

That old bicycle gathering dust in your garage could have a choice spot in the developing world. So could that idle sewing machine you inherited from your grandmother.

David Schweidenback, a former school teacher and Peace Corps volunteer, collects and redistributes both under Pedals for Progress, the nonprofit he established in 1991.

As one of the world’s oldest and largest bike donation programs, Pedals for Progress has distributed nearly 150,000 bikes and 3,600 sewing machines to 38 countries.

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Bikes donated from Pedals for Progress await new owners in Guatemala.

"Consumers buy 17 million bikes a year, and millions of old ones wind up discarded or unused,'' Schweidenback says. "A lot of our donated bikes, for the most part, are barely ridden." But, he says, "They can be used in many areas of the developing world, where poor people need cheap transportation to get to jobs, markets, or schools."

Schweidenback, 64, got the idea to repurpose bikes while he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, where rural villagers often spend hours walking to school or jobs.

“I saw how a bicycle could change people’s lives,’’ he says. “The problem isn’t a lack of opportunity or employment in the developing world—it’s the [lack of] ability to get to where you need to be. If it takes you five times longer to get where you’re going, you’re not going to be very productive. The one thing you can’t buy is time.”

When he returned home to New Jersey, he began teaching at a local high school. He also did home remodeling and carpentry on the side.

"Every week, I saw bikes sitting in garages gathering dust." In his spare time, he began scrounging for unwanted bikes, hoping to collect a dozen to ship to Ecuador.

His first effort netted 140 bikes—and a broader vision. By 1994, his twice-annual bike collection drive had spread to five states, and he'd given up teaching and carpentry to run Pedals for Profits full time.

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A modified Pedals for Progress bike enables a San Salvador baker to make deliveries.


Sewing machines became part of the collections in 1999. “A bike gets someone to a job,’’ says Schweidenback, a 2000 Rolex Laureate. “A sewing machine is a job.”

Pedals for Progress has refined operations as it has evolved. Early on, Schweidenback dealt with some unscrupulous middlemen. Five shipping containers of bikes bound for distrribution in Haiti were once stolen. Pedals for Progress now works through 15 partner organizations in several countries, which provide distribution and local jobs.

Prospective owners usually pay no more than $10 for their bikes. "People don't take care of things they're given,'' Schweidenback says. "If they have an investment in a bike, it becomes their property and it's more important to take better care of them."

Bike donators are also required to pony up money: $10 per drop-off. The donations offset some of Pedals for Progress' overhead costs. Shipping is the biggest expense—a 40-foot container can cost as much as $12,000 to send overseas. Schweidenback also has to rent trucks to collect bikes and sewing machines.

"We're constantly scrambling to raise money, which limits the amount of trucks I can afford to have on the road and the overseas shipments I can make,'' he says.

Pedals for Progress has several collections scheduled in the New York metropolitan area next spring. Check here for details.

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.