Waste can often be a resource in the wrong place. The recent boom and bust of the dockless share bike industry in China has led to millions of bicycles being discarded in ‘share bike graveyards’ and around cities (see BBC video meeting). Meanwhile, only 18% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to public transport meaning there is an overwhelming reliance on private transportation (UN Sustainable Development Goal 11). By upcycling these bicycles in China and distributing them to those most in need in East Africa, Sparrow is bringing the two regions together – using a problem to solve a problem. Sparrow’s mission is to provide low-cost and zero-emission transport to the bottom billion.

Sparrow is not simply about providing bikes and reusing waste. Sparrow will help more students go to school, help doctors visit more patients and help farmers bring more crops to markets ⁠— bolstering communities to drive their own development.

As these bikes have been designed for shared use and outdoor storage, they often contain features such as sealed drive trains, airless tyres, alloy wheels and internal gears helping them be more reliable and low maintenance compared to a conventional bicycle. This is important in regions where there is limited access to tools, parts and mechanics. Because of support networks, infrastructure appropriateness and cycling culture, Sparrow is piloting in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Through supply chain innovation, Sparrow can handover bikes at about a third of the cost of a conventional bicycle charity, meaning Sparrow helps raised funds be more effective and improve more lives.

Over time, Sparrow aims to elevate the culture around cycling in the region and reduce reliance on cars and motorcycles, improving air quality, congestion and health through exercise.

The team

Having met in the MPhil Masters in Engineering for Sustainable Development program at the University of Cambridge, Aaron and William are passionate about finding new ways of reducing waste and empowering societies.

Aaron Junjian Zhang (China) has been working with communities in Kenya and Rwanda before coming to the UK. While in East Africa, he conducted market research to better understand the dynamic between China and East Africa. Aaron will specialise in local contexts, the human experience in East Africa, as well as developing relationships involved in sourcing bicycles and making sure the bicycles get to the people who need them most.

William Young (Australia) has been building bicycles since he was a child and most recently founded AUREN Bikes, making custom titanium bicycles. With his mechanical engineering background, William has conducted social good work in Jordan, Sri Lanka and India. He will specialise in the product and technical aspects of Sparrow, including bicycle modifications and logistics.