Lavendar Hill's Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN) center is a beacon of hope in a neighborhood plagued by gang wars. Fabian, the self-described good/bad boy who is currently running a sales and repair shop in a recycled shipping container while his boss undergoes training, told Inhabitat that six gangs are currently at war near the shop and adjacent school, which makes his work as a community leader even more important. One of 17 BEN shops scattered throughout mostly underprivileged areas of Cape Town, the Lavendar Hill center doubles as a cycling club, where youth and adults gather either to watch Fabian repair bicycles or to participate in group cycling events.
Andrew Wheeldon established BEN a decade ago in order to promote poverty alleviation and sustainable mobility for the 2014 World Design Capital’s poorest residents. A non-profit organization that receives funding from local and international donors, BEN imports bicycles from Europe and China and distributes them to the various centers that are also equipped with tools. Each of these is run in recycled shipping containers as a registered business by a local, responsible and respected community member.
BEN repairs the bicycles they receive and then sells them at affordable prices — about $30 for brand-name bikes like Trek and Specialized. It cost nearly $7,800 to set up a BEN center, which is a lot of money in local currency, and funding is often hard to secure. While the recycled shipping container we visited in Lavendar Hill has a spunky paint job and is secured with massive padlocks, the interior is neither lit nor insulated, and it’s starting to get cold on the peninsula.
This should not be construed as a failure on BEN’s part. The organization lobbies the Department of Transportation for safer cycling routes, organizes educational events and works to help communities achieve greater economic independence through their newfound mobility. Instead, these somewhat rough bicycle repair centers should be viewed as a small but significant step in addressing the numerous societal reconstruction challenges that South Africa still faces. For the little boy or girl who grows up in despair of gang violence, a bicycle trip into the nearby mountains with such a strong support network is nothing short of paradise.