by Liz Jansen
Claire Elsdon, is the CEO and Founder of Pikilily, a UK based organization that provides motorcycle maintenance education in Tanzania. Her vision evolved from a solo London to Cape Town motorcycle ride in 2012/13, during which she observed how educating riders about motorcycle maintenance could help communities, keep vital projects running, and potentially save lives.
During that trip, she helped provide motorcycle education to microfinance workers in Mlawi. In 2015 she returned to southern Tanzania for a Midwives on Motorbikes project. Claire moved to Tanzania in April 2016 to establish a women’s motorcycle maintenance workshop and riding school, and is now working on an additional project to refurbish four motorcycle ambulances.
Claire is living proof of the difference one person can make by following her heart, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
In this interview, Claire talks about how Pikilily came about and some of the projects they’re working on. Watch or listen, whichever works best for you.
From London Stockbroker to Solo Moto Traveler
In 2012, Claire Elsdon quit her job as a stockbroker, packed up her motorbike and spent the next year riding from London to Cape Town, South Africa.
As a stockbroker, she’d been able to afford to take some amazing trips in the short periods of time she got off so she’d travel to Mongolia or South Africa and do some incredible off-roading.
It wasn’t so much about being on the motorbike as what it gave her—interactions with fascinating people she’d not normally meet and understanding a bit about their lives and their culture. Riding made her feel really alive and she was curious to see more of that.
Advice from her Gran
Claire had been in her [stockbroker] job for 6-7 years, through a particularly intense economic time, and recognized she needed a break. She wasn’t sure if this is what she wanted to for the rest of her life.
At the same time, her gran had broken her arm in two places and was in hospital. When Claire went to visit, her gran told her, “I wish that when I was your age (29) I’d done the things I wanted to do and not the things other people expected me to do.“
That statement had a profound effect on Claire. “You hear these things from other people,” she says, “but when you hear it from someone that close, it really hits home. I thought, wow! I’ve got so much. I’ve got my health, I’ve got a bit of money tucked away. There’s no reason why I can’t do a trip like this. What would be worse than being afraid and not doing it, would be getting to Gran’s age and thinking I’ve missed my chance. I had to do it.”
Rather than take a leave, Claire quit completely to give herself space to think. About six months after returning, she went back to London, but found it a very hard adjustment. The fact that her cherished bike with which she’d shared so much was stolen didn’t help. She was heartbroken.
Keeping the spirit of the trip alive
She’d already pursued a motorbike maintenance project in Mlawi with a charity doing microfinance in rural communities. They couldn’t understand why the bikes were breaking down all the time and costing a fortune to maintain. When she got there, she found it was because there was no maintenance going on.
They spent six weeks devising a manual called Love Your Motorcycle, detailing daily, weekly, monthly, maintenance requirements and then went around teaching it to the loan officers.
From that, Claire was asked to help midwives in southern Tanzania. The work just evolved from a real need and interest in these [maintenance] skills. So she started learning more.
“If I can share these skills,” she reasoned, “it will keep people safe and provide an income too. Motorbikes have proliferated in Africa and the formal training hasn’t caught up.”
Reducing motorcycle crashes
Alcohol is a big factor in the number of crashes in Tanzania. Up to the last year, people generally didn’t wear helmets at all. Now they do but the quality is terrible. Ladies wear them on top of their elaborate hairstyles.
Maintenance isn’t the only issue but it’s a big factor. Addressing things like no brake fluid in the reservoir or slack chains that are about to jump off the sprocket are easy to address and can save crashes.
Claire knew in her first project she’d relying on a lot of help from strangers. She thought if she could share some knowledge, maybe she could share her finance background with these people and help.
She’d been able to reach out in advance of her London to Cape Town trip to see how she could help. The organization invited her to stop by for a couple of months as a volunteer and see what she could do.
Once she’d done the motorbike maintenance training and had a chat with the procurement guy about using quality spare parts, the running costs of these bikes were cut by 60%. That was very powerful for the sustainability of the organization.
After her trip, her path somehow took her back to Tanzania, probably because of the Midwives on Motorbikes project.
Getting over the voice that says “Who am I do be doing this?”
Claire hears that voice a lot! Her background isn’t in motorcycle maintenance, or logistics. She spoke to another woman who told her about her plans and she advised her she probably have more skills than she knew. And she didn’t need to know everything. I just need to be the person that cares, and looks for the answers. Click to Tweet.
And how true it was. It was amazing how things fell into place when she put that energy out there—who stepped forward to say they could help. You don’t need all the answers, but she has to remind herself of that often.
She’s taking this one step at a time. Right now it’s registering as a charity in the UK, getting grant funding for this motorcycle ambulance, and then finding apprentices and tools. Everything needs to go in its order to realize her big picture view. And she can only handle one or two things at a time anyway.
Midwives on Motorbikes Project
Songea, in the south of Tanzania, is the poorest region with the poorest health care outcomes. To help have adequate medical solutions, you need to be ready for people. One of the reasons they [mothers and babies] don’t survive is they don’t know they need to go to the hospital (90% of Tanzanians live rurally). Other basic issues are getting transport from home to hospital and having enough staff at the hospital.
Claire was there in April 2015 training midwives and health care workers in motorcycle maintenance and getting the initial logistics sussed out. She noticed since she’d been in Tanzania three years earlier the number of motorbikes had exploded.
It’s a great source of income for young men as taxi drives. But what we’re not seeing is the crashes. Hospitals actually have motorcycle crash wards. These young men need help making sure the motorbike is safe and sustainable for their passengers and themselves, and the community.
That’s when she started thinking about what she could do about it.
Gaining local support
Claire flew down on her own, unsupported in April 2016 to see what she could do. That was pretty tough because she didn’t really speak the language or know anyone there. She was fortunate to meet Khalid Maagi, the man who’s now the co-director and partner of Pikililly. He runs a carpentry business and has been hiring young men from the streets as apprentices for about 10 years, so they share common values and intentions. His shop shares a wall with the Pikililly workshop and he’s been very helpful in getting things set up.
Claire admits she’s gone through a very steep learning curve—and there’s always more to learn.
How people can help
Fundraising. They’re currently raising $100,000 pounds/$125K USD to fund the refurbishment and the running of four motorbike ambulances. They’re dilapidated and just sitting there doing nothing. They’ve been approached by the Medical Officer of Health for Sengenrema to refurbish them. It’s a community of 700,000 people currently being served by one additional ambulance, which generally is out of service.
Contribute to the crowdfunding campaign for Pikilily’s moto ambulance project page.
Claire has witnessed a number of tragedies that could have had much better outcomes if those motorbikes had been functional. There is a fundraising page on the website and Claire would be thrilled to hear from you; also she’s interested in fundraising ideas you may have.
Become a Pikilily ambassador by becoming a fundraiser in your neighborhood or workplace, or school, joining other ambassadors from around the world. Pikilily can send supportive material.
Volunteer any unique knowledge or skills, like contacts at grant-giving bodies, or other certain skill sets Pikilily can benefit from.
Like Pikilily’s FB page and sign up for their newsletter.
For more information and to watch Claire’s videos on her work in Africa, go to www.PikiLily.com.