Photograph by Cade Martin

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Molly Burke and Muyambi Muyambi ride together in Bethesda, Maryland.

Photograph by Cade Martin

Travelers of the Year: Muyambi Muyambi and Molly Burke

Bringing bicycles to the people


Where most people see a bike, Muyambi Muyambi and Molly Burke see potential. Their organization, Bicycles Against Poverty, uses a microfinance model to distribute bikes in rural Uganda, turning what would be a three-hour walk into a swift spin to health clinics, markets, and schools.

"I’m from southern Uganda, but grew up traveling often to the north, an area deeply affected by war,” says 24-year-old Muyambi. “Traveling showed me how people lived, and it revealed their struggles.” Muyambi found a way to make a difference while studying at Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University, where he met Burke. Together, they developed their nonprofit, which distributes bikes to low-income entrepreneurs who make monthly payments of about $3 to cover half the price of a bike. The organization, which has issued more than 660 bikes so far, then provides workshops in financial management.

While looking to expand their program, the cyclophiles raise funds through their annual 3,200-mile bike tour across the U.S. It’s not easy—Muyambi works as a civil engineer in Washington, D.C., and Burke draws no salary from the organization. Says Muyambi, “It’s amazing to feel you’re contributing to the people you love, the country you love, and the world you love—because they are all connected.”

—By George W. Stone


National Geographic Traveler: Where did you get your inspiration?

Muyambi Muyambi: I’m from Rukungiri, in southern Uganda, but I grew up traveling all across the country, seeing how people live, seeing their struggles. I came to see that a bicycle is all about potential. The bikes provide access to health clinics, markets for trading, clean water, and schools—they mean, for example, that someone who is sick and needs to walk six-plus miles to a hospital can be transported by bike instead. They’re life-changing tools.

NGT: How can bikes help alleviate poverty?

Molly Burke: Getting bicycles to developing countries helps individuals create their own opportunities. We give workshops as part of our program. In the opening workshop our staff members ask the community, “What is poverty?” One villager in Acholi said, “Poverty is lack of transportation. Poverty is being confined to an area where you can’t get to trade your farm goods, buy the products you need to, or get to the health center when it’s necessary. Poverty is being stuck and not being able to leave your area.” A $100 bicycle can changes lives.

NGT: How did you get the courage to launch Bicycles Against Poverty?

MB: We’re entrepreneurs. We lack those parts of our brain where fear should kick in. We don’t really think in terms of hurdles or needing courage, it’s just a matter of when and where the “what” gets accomplished. It’s funny because I don’t think of courage as something we need. Money, resources, time, and the occasional search for focus? Those are things I think about.

NGT: What qualities have enabled you to succeed?

MM: I’m always surprised by Molly’s willingness to learn from others, engage in innovative dialogue, and above all take action. In 2012 she left her job because of her passion for BAP, working tirelessly to turn a project into a fast growing nonprofit. And her ability to navigate the Ugandan bureaucracy, which eludes many, is rather impressive. And I say this as a Ugandan myself.

MB: I like to think that Muyambi and I have an endless supply of adrenaline. Whether we’re traveling in Uganda or on our cross-country cycling trip, we always find the energy to get the job done.

NGT: What does it mean to travel with passion and purpose?

MB: That you’re able to forgo certain luxuries or amenities to fulfill your goal. We see the world through a social-change lens and, whether we’re traveling for pleasure or business, we see opportunities for social change everywhere.

NGT: How can you be an excellent traveler?

MM: A trait that the best travelers embody is open-mindedness—a willingness and ability to soak in knowledge like a sponge from every community.

MB: Act like a sponge. Absorb what’s around you and adjust accordingly. Ask questions and listen to what people say. The most important piece of this is to have an open mind. This is important when it comes to the day-to-day travel as well as the cultural acceptances. You can’t expect to go into another region, state, or country without being flexible. You have to apply this to all facets of your travel, whether it be the food, people, activities, or modes of transport.

NGT: Where are you headed next?

MB: What’s remarkable about Bicycles Against Poverty is that it's unbelievably scalable. We want to expand within East Africa first. We have Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia on our list. Then I want to head to South Africa, India, western China, Central America, the Middle East. And let’s not forget about the Deep South in the U.S.

NGT: What’s your ultimate goal?

MB: To provide access to opportunities across the globe. In the words of Hillary Clinton, “Talent is universal, opportunity is not.” Bicycles Against Poverty lives by this. We understand that greatness is across the word, but access to the opportunity to make the most of your potential is not always readily available.

MM: I believe in bicycles so much. I see them as something that’s important to everyone. I remember wondering where I’d end up in life, but giving back to the community was always on my mind. Now I’m just looking for the resources to continue doing it.