By Elaine Pirozzi
It was while living in Mozambique in 2008, taking a road trip through the countryside, that Lauren Thomas and her future business partner, Rui Mesquita, had their a-ha moment. Over and over again they observed that the people of this southeastern African nation routinely walked long distances under the hot sun, often with heavy loads on their heads. It seemed clear that owning bikes could make the lives of Mozambican’s easier, and they wondered why so few people had them.
What they discovered after research and talking to local people was that numerous obstacles existed that made bicycle ownership impractical or even impossible. Bikes were not readily available, and when they were the prices were often prohibitively expensive, even for those of low quality. So Thomas and Mesquita began to brainstorm how they might change the dynamics of bicycle ownership in Mozambique. “We knew that we could design a better model to get bikes into the market,” Thomas says.
It wasn’t long after that fateful road trip that Mozambikes was born, and in late 2011, their first shipment of bikes was brought to the country.
Thomas grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and received her BA and BSBA from the University of Chapel Hill in North Carolina. She later worked as a financier on Wall Street, but knew that she wanted something more. “I love crunching numbers and am passionate about finance but I wanted to experience different cultures and languages and make more of an impact,” she says.
She enrolled in the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, where she obtained her MBA. And from there, in 2008, she embarked on a four-month mission to Mozambique, writing business plans for local fruit farmers. It was during this time that she met Rui Mesquita. a Portuguese who was in Mozambique to build a telecommunications business.
Once the pair began thinking about the benefits of bicycles, it was clear they had hit upon an opportunity to make a real difference in a country where approximately half the population lives below the poverty line. They saw how the lack of available and dependable transportation had far-reaching effects. Citizens often could not access health care, education, or job opportunities simply because they were unable to travel the long distances to schools, doctors, or markets.
Mozambikes’ strategy is twofold. They start by importing high-quality bicycles from China. Previously, the bikes available in Mozambique had been of low-quality and were simply unable to carry the heavy loads required of them or handle the rough terrain. Therefore, the bikes that Mozambikes distributes are specially reinforced to meet the needs of the local market. Among other things, the bikes are outfitted with stronger tires and extended back plates that can be used for loading goods and products for transport. Thomas and Mesquita have established a local factory that assembles the parts and verifies that each one meets the stringent quality requirements. This factory provides jobs for people within the community, which Thomas sees as a crucial aspect of their business platform.
The second component that makes Mozambikes unique, and the reason they are able to sell the high-quality bikes at a much lower cost, is that the bikes are customized, or branded, converting them to advertising platforms. “It’s a win-win scenario,” says Thomas. “Branding the bicycles subsidizes the cost. Businesses may also be interested in buying fleets of vehicles sporting their name for their employees, and as a result individuals gain affordable access to a means of transport that will enhance their lives.”
The growth of Mozambikes has been impressive, and they have received numerous accolades. “We have over 7000 bicycles on the ground and are gaining more and more attention each day. Watching Mozambikes blossom from a ‘passion project’ into a booming operation has been amazing,” Thomas says. In 2014, they won the Seed Award, an annual global award that recognizes the most promising social and environmental enterprises in developing countries. “We were thrilled to learn we would be winning the SEED award. It’s rare to find an organization that provide both financial and non-financial support to established social entrepreneurs, and continues to give support even after the grant.”
When asked whether she has advice for other women starting businesses in Mozambique, Thomas freely admits there are challenges. “There aren’t good resources here. I think meeting with established entrepreneurs and getting firsthand feedback is the best way to start. Mozambique is still a very male-dominated society and the culture is not as friendly to women in high positions. I do see this changing as more women are rising up, but at this point it’s still easier for my male partner to deal with certain issues with our male technicians. It’s not that they respect me less, but they feel less comfortable around me.”
She continues, “Mozambique is still a very traditional business environment, and the most effective form of selling is by making personal connections and seeking in-person meetings. Emails are extremely ineffective, and marketing channels like TV and radio don’t really achieve the desired benefits.”
As the company continues to grow and find increased financial stability, Thomas reflects on what they have achieved. And while she states that she’s always been a math person and loves the financial and accounting side of the business, her passion for the social enterprise aspect drives her as well. “I am proud of building a business from scratch that has distributed over 7,000 bicycles, employs 12 local workers, and has formed partnerships with some of the largest companies and NGOs in the world.
“But I also love our donations events. When we give the bicycles to people in rural Mozambique, we are met with singing, crying and laughing. It is so amazing to see and hear from the people who will be able to bring water to their families, and take their babies to the hospital, and put more food on their table.”
Elaine Pirozzi lives and writes in Washington, D.C.