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Kwano Cycling Academy: Changing young lives in South Africa

24 Sep 2018

Words: Peter Stuart Photography: Francis Cade

For most of us, cycling is about leisure and well-being. In South Africa, the charitable efforts of a few enthusiasts show how much cycling can achieve in changing the lives of the underprivileged. 

Colin Shave, a Plettenberg Bay cycling fanatic, has created a grassroots charity initiative to use cycling to lift disadvantaged South African children out of the poverty of townships. He spends much of his time-based in one deprived township outside Plettenberg Bay, where he runs a programme training 35 young cyclists, who have flourished in South African cycling competitions.

The scheme has an innovative focus on education, where it draws on the discipline taught in sport but also requires that students engage in extra education to stay in the programme. 

We sit down with Colin to discuss his work with Kwano and cycling in South Africa.

What made you want to start the Kwano Cycling Academy?

I was born and grew up in South Africa. I felt like I wanted to do something to make a difference. In my youth sport was a huge draw. To me, sport was something that would help you know something about yourself and other people. I also feel that if we use the sport as a draw, then we can achieve things academically too.

Some of the children are very disadvantaged, and if you look at the environment they go home to, it’s almost impossible to study there. So we create a base for cycling but also for studying. 

Colin Shave, who's based in Plettenberg Bay, founded Kwano Cycling Academy

How does the charity work and how is it supported?

Kwano Cycling is a freestanding charity in South Africa and Kwano is basically a shortened version of the community name which is called Kwanokuthula. The charity itself is a grassroots project that provides bikes, cycling coaching and education to children in the township.

It’s supported by the Buffalo Foundation, which was established by two businessmen, Jan Joubert and his partner Tim Hanley, who are the owners of a London tech company called Rainmaker Solutions. 

Now we really want people to join the Buffalo Foundation to broaden the support.

You’ve started up a cycling and academic programme for the children of Kwanokuthula. Why did you choose this particular township?

It’s the biggest one around Plettenberg Bay and it’s the most underserved. For the youngsters at that school, there are no real after-school sports activities. You can sing in the choir and that’s it.

There’s about 1,000 children in this tiny school. It’s the only high school in the community. I mean there are wonderful stories to come out of there but the general education level is quite low. 

I’d say 90% or 95% of them don’t study maths, they do something called maths literacy, which is like 5th-grade arithmetic.

How does the programme work?

Two days a week, the kids who are in the Academy finish the school and go off and bike ride on our fleet of mountain bikes. They ride at the weekend too. On the other three days a week they have to go to the computer lab and there we have a teacher who’s building a team of volunteers whose focus is Mathematics and English which are two huge gaps in the education. 

Right from the beginning, we said that we want to combine cycling and education. We’ve got the cycling pretty much done and now we’re just getting the wheels under the education part of it. We have a full-time salaried teacher and we have a few volunteers. 

Is the aim that if they don’t maintain the academic side they lose the cycling elements?

Well, it’s difficult. This is Africa, and the kids don’t have much. We want to see continuous improvement in their results, I’m not going to set a benchmark that says you have to have x number of As and Bs, or whatever it is, we take away your bike.

The main thing is that unless you come to the academic part of it, you can’t ride. Coming to the academics is a pre-qualifier for you to be in the riding programme. We have had no trouble with attendance or anything in the riding programme, the kids love to ride, and that's motivation to stick with the academics. 

How did the programme start and what has changed?

When we first started we weren’t at the school. We had a storage facility on someone’s farm out at the airport near Plett. We had to go and pick the kids up every day, drive them out there, ride, clean the bikes, pack them up and then drive them back home. So, from a logistics viewpoint, that model wasn’t scalable.

We realised we had to be based in the community, so now we base ourselves out of a storage container beside the school, where we also keep all of our equipment.

Being in a township that is very disadvantaged, and with high levels of crime, do you feel safe and accepted by the community?

I don’t view us as being really brave to be based there at all.

I wouldn’t go in there late on a Friday night when everybody’s tanked up. But it’s interesting because there’s a certain appreciation of what we do. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think if anything ever went pear-shaped in there that the community would rally. 

For instance, we’ve not had any attempted theft of our bicycles. If you’d have asked anybody they’d have said you guys are nuts to put those bicycles in there, because they’ll just break in and steal them.

I don't know whether that's because they look at it and say there’s a programme which is trying to help kids. I mean there’s certainly a recognition of what’s going on.

I’ll have people who live in the community who will be a petrol pump attendant in Plett, and will talk to me about it and they’ll know that we’re involved. The kids are also really proud, they are very proud that they’re part of our programme. 

Why have you done so much on the academic side rather than just focussing on cycling?

Because once you start to engage with the children and see the gaps in the education system in South Africa, you realise they’re just not prepared to go out and get a career.

Yes if I have the cycling programme I’ll get the kids off the street and they’re not going to do bad stuff after school and that sort of thing. But I really want to try to uplift them permanently. Otherwise while it may keep them off the streets, when they leave school what do they do then – are they going to be able to continue cycling? Only if they’ve got a job, but if they don’t have any work then they slide back on Maslow's hierarchy.

So for me the African challenge is far more about trying to get these kids prepared to try to get a career. We talk to a lot of places, we can get scholarships for university or trade programmes if the students get good marks. We want them to be able to sustain themselves financially going forward. 

How does the programme aim to change their aspirations?

One aim is to get them away from bad influences, but another is to raise their aspirations. If you can get them to aim higher, to think that there are other options in life from those they see in the township, so what we’d like to do is to broaden those opportunities that they see.

There are some brilliant youngsters who aim low because they don’t realise how talented they are in cycling terms, and I suspect they are also untapped academically. 

If we can get them to broaden their views and aim higher that would be a home run for us. 

I think that one of the draws that keeps them involved in Kwano, is that it’s not necessarily about the bicycle but it’s that there’s a group of people there who care about them, who are interested in them and trying to help them develop.

Is there a national youth racing scene for mountain biking in South Africa?

In South Africa, the steakhouse chain Spur has the Spur high school series across the whole country. We ride in the southwest district, the Southern Cape. We have about 14 schools in the southern cape and the top two schools go to nationals. We came 3rd last year, so we just missed going to nationals. We’re competing with huge schools which are very affluent. Their kids have got everything. 

You turn up to the races and the kids are warming up on rollers and things, that's a different world to what our kids can afford.

We’re the only school from a township. They’re all private schools or very large well-funded government schools. The Kwano kids certainly punch above their weight.

Do you consider riding in this region to be dangerous?

Nah. I’d ride my bike by myself through Kwano. I just don’t think anyone's going to bother you.

I've heard of minor incidents in the past but we've certainly not had any serious incidents in our area. Many people still ride by themselves in the forest, but like everywhere in the world there are areas you wouldn't go by yourself. You should alway be street smart, so to speak. 

What is the next step for Kwano?

At the moment we’re based on the school’s grounds but we want to get independent of that. We need to create a facility for the kids to go after school to get educational help. We hope there’ll be a library for them to access, and there’ll be a gym and a workshop so it can be a base for them to ride from.

We’ve got an architect drawing up plans for this at the moment, and that's what we need money for.

Beyond that, of course, I’d love to make it a national scheme. But it is going to take someone who takes it by the throat to get it done, and completely voluntarily. There are times when this has been time-consuming and a big commitment. Without the four mates I’ve had to help me get to here I’m not sure how I would have made it happen. 

Was discipline ever an issue with the children, and do you notice any culture divide between your training schedule and their life in the township?

The first issue is time. Everyone talks about African Time – they have no concept of time. If you say I want to meet you at 6 am tomorrow morning, but their alarm doesn’t work or their power goes out, they don’t think to let you know, it hasn’t even crossed their mind. That was the case at first at least, but now there’s not one of those kids who wouldn’t show up without sending a Whatsapp message to let me know they’ve got a problem. 

Really, they’re very well behaved kids. The interesting thing is that when you first get them they wouldn't come forward and introduce themselves and shake your hand, they would stand and watch.

One of the lovely things is to see as they develop confidence enough to introduce themselves and engage. We’re seeing that with the girls that we've recently added to the programme too.

What sort of changes have you seen to the self-esteem of the kids on the programme as a result of taking up cycling?

It’s huge and that’s where we get our satisfaction. You get some kid absolutely lit up because of what they accomplish in these races. The other thing is you see character development.

One of our strongest riders, Sipho, raced last year in Spur. In the last race of the season, he dropped his chain off the start line, within about 50m. By the time he got his chain back on, he was into singletrack for 2km and dead last, and he came in 3rd. How on earth he even passed all these people I will never know. 

We said to him you’ve learnt way more about yourself from this thing coming 3rd than if you’d won because you learned you can fight to get back. I mean he was just walking on air after that result.

That’s probably the most rewarding part of it. Because you see how these kids change as human beings.

For information on how to help the Kwano Cycling Academy, visit the Buffalo Foundation.