Wheels of Change: Dan Austin of Austin-Lehman Adventures on Giving Back

9 May 2011

"The days of bringing a 5-pound bag of candy into a community are thankfully over... Building a bridge between the locals, the guests, and the Western world is both an opportunity and a responsibility we must all embrace."

by Nicole Petrak, ATTA Special Projects and Assistant Editor of AdventureTravelNews

Dan Austin, founder and owner of Austin-Lehman Adventures (ALA) is a longtime ATTA member and serves on the 2011 Adventure Travel World Summit Advisory Committee.

How did you begin getting involved with shipping bikes to Africa?

Great question. Our involvement with collecting and shipping bikes to Africa started last year. Here at Austin-Lehman we just purchased a new fleet of tour bikes and had 120 high quality used mountain bikes we needed to do something about. Paul and I decided we should look for something rewarding to do to utilize our old fleet, which had served us well. I started “googling around” and soon found an organization in Namibia; BEN Namibia (Bicycle Empowerment Network) and a fellow named Michael Linke. Michael introduced me to Bicycles for Humanity. We decided this was exactly what we were looking for and began in earnest working on the local collection of bikes (to supplement those we already had) and the filling of a large shipping container that ultimately held over 300 bikes and parts and became the actual shop. We worked with Michael on the “How To” and to locate the perfect village to be the recipient of our efforts. In the process we launched the Billings, Montana Chapter of B4H to help solicit community involvement in the collection and shipping of our first full container of bikes and parts to Ngoma, Namibia. Here we would establish the next BEC (Bicycle Empowerment Center) with Michael's help and support.

What role did your status as owner of Austin Lehman Adventures play in this, and what is the next step for you and ALA?

This effort was so energizing and eye-opening! We witnessed the community (and our staff) rally to collect hundreds and hundreds of bikes and through it all, I kept learning more and more about the process, the opportunities and the growing need for such programs in rural Africa.

For instance, did you know that we throw away over 10 million bikes a year in the USA? Through the entire process, I and ALA just kept getting more and more dedicated and involved. We then decided we needed to step up and “walk the talk”, so my son Andy and I traveled to Namibia (to coincide with the delivery of our container). We met with Michael and tossed around some great ideas. After that, Andy and I helped with the unloading and establishment of the new BEC (built from the container itself). We spent 3 weeks exploring Namibia, visiting “other” BEC’s and lodges, building a new Austin-Lehman Adventure that would have us visit the shop, rent bikes from them and ride scenic back roads with the locals. The BEN/BEC concept is simple; utilize everything and create new “bike shops” from the actual shipping containers converted into a community bike shop that employs locals and provides a source of income (and pride) for the community. Michael and BEN Namibia have successfully established 26 up and running “BEC’s” in Namibia.

As we traveled across Namibia and visited existing up and running BEC’s,  I was amazed at the difference something as simple as a bike was making in the day to day lives of the locals. We were welcomed with open arms and just found everyone so accommodating and positive. Needless to say, we quickly determined this would be an ongoing relationship and not just a onetime offering. At the risk of sounding corny, both my son and I fell in love with the African people and look forward to establishing a commitment that will last a lifetime.

We are now entering Year Two and we are currently working on our second container with local donations. When filled, this one is going outside of Namibia (a first) to Nairobi, Kenya. We are working with a Nairobi woman to establish a much needed bike shop (you should ask me to share the amazing business plan she sent me). We plan to ship some 350 bikes to Nairobi in mid-May. Again taking it a step further, we are working on a new Kenya Program for 2012 that will have us visiting that shop and renting and riding bikes with our guests and the local “crew”. Michael is mentoring “Prisca,” the shop manager, on the process.

What’s a BEC? Visit: http://www.benbikes.org.za/namibia/projects/becs/becs.html

[caption id="attachment_7903" align="pull-right" width="300" caption="Dan's son, Andy Austin, has helped his father develop the charity further."][/caption]

At what point in a company's maturation do you think a company owner decides to take on a significant philanthropic endeavor? What is motivation behind this move?

It is all about focus. For me this seemed to apply to the responsibility of starting and developing a growing adventure travel company as well as raising two children... both taking time and not leaving much room for anything else. As my company (and kids) matured there was more time and energy to look outside my current world. It got even simpler as the kids both left for college. I found myself with the need to refocus at least some of my excess energy on something beyond parenting and work. I think all of us during the course of our lives are faced with many opportunities to be generous and give time, money, whatever it may be, to others less fortunate. You hear the term all the time. “I want to give back, I want to make a difference in this world” but what that really means is very personal. For me it was the aligning of my two worlds; home life and work. Now that Austin-Lehman was reaching a solid foundation and recognized as an industry leader, I was at the same time faced with “empty nest” syndrome with my two kids heading out to make their own lives. What I found was the amazing pleasure that came from getting involved in B4H and BEN. What was even more enlightening was the way not just my family, but the entire ALA team, embraced the effort. With little convincing needed, we all got involved in collecting bikes, loading the container and raising funds for shipping. What started as my personal cause was quickly embraced by others.  It has now truly become “our” project and everyone involved from my family to my staff to others we infect with the same passion, love and support for this project. The added benefit is that the experience has brought us all a little closer together.

For me, the decision to now step it up even more was and is a no brainer. Travel and adventure is my life. If I can use my connections and experience to make a difference, “how great is that!”  Besides, I don’t play golf so I need something to add to my days and now have the time!

[caption id="attachment_7904" align="pull-left" width="300" caption="New wheels in Namibia"][/caption]

What type of possible further development, in scale or in mission, do you see the program being capable of as it begins to meet its goals?

After a year of working with Michael Linke it became quite clear that the BEC model is working but it can be so much more. To this end we are working with Michael to help create a new entity to support and expand his impressive efforts. We have decided to call it Wheels of Change! The BEC model will still be the foundation, but the model will be expanded. I have helped to enlighten Michael on the potential to integrate Tourism Opportunities and we have already seen results. For example: we are currently working with a young African woman to establish day bike tours through a township in Windhoek, Namibia. We also reviewed and helped another African woman with her business plan to establish a bike shop in Nairobi, Kenya. Michael is mentoring her and training the shop workers and Austin-Lehman is working on a new tour program in Kenya that will again visit the shop and utilize the bikes for a fee. We are looking at the BECs as a hub for the community that can and will provide other essentials for day to day life. Yet another example has us working with a group of university students out of Australia to raise funds and ship Solar Lanterns to be sold at the BECs. We are providing everything from guidance, oversight, mentoring and training, to micro loans.

Wheels of Change will expand the role of facilitator, continue to work with various chapters of B4H around the world in regards to collection and shipping of bikes, but also expand to work with other similar collection efforts as well as additional projects, outside the world of bicycles.

We are using our resources here at ALA to make “connections,” “offer advice”, “ferret out opportunities” and in general just ensure that we are involved! Whether it be looking over a business plan for a start up, providing a micro loan, or just mentoring or counseling, we are there.

Do you think the tourism community is posed to make special and unique contributions to indigenous communities worldwide, outside of what other government, NGOs and groups are doing? If so, can you name some ideas of what could be done outside the projects you and ALA have taken on?

I, along with Austin-Lehman Adventures, will be using our years of experience to help integrate sustainable tourism into the mix. We have successfully added day trip offerings to many of the existing bike shops and have and will continue to work with local lodges to lease bikes from the shops and offer them to their guests. We are mentoring individuals on how they can provide services to travelers and / or agents (like the day tours in Windhoek). We will be offering our experience around Africa, and other developing regions, to expand the footprint and reach of Wheels of Change.

As leaders in global tourism organized under the banner of ATTA, I would be hard-pressed to find a group of companies and/or individuals that have more to offer in terms of expertise and sustainable business experience. By traveling the world, we see firsthand what is needed and what can be done to enhance the visitors' experience and at the same time provide opportunities for locals on the ground. I hope to get buy-in from others in this industry on what we hope to achieve.

Frankly, the BEC model is beyond simple. During my recent familiarization trip to Chiapas, Antonio del Rosal and I kept looking at locations that would be perfect to receive a shipment and establish a shop. Beyond that, the opportunities are endless. One only has to think outside the box, draw on one’s own experience and or needs, and think of ways to make a difference. Over the years with all my travels I have seen both opportunity and many successes, but along with that, an equal number of missed opportunities and unfulfilled promises. I recall one of my first exposures to a successful partnership effort was a rafting company in Peru that helped a local community create a café at the end of the float to provide changing rooms and lunch. It was, and still is, an extremely popular and successful venture. How many more such opportunities are out there? Enough work and opportunities to fill a couple of lifetimes I would guess!

To be honest, there are so many locations and communities around the world we travel that lack basic resources we take for granted, making a difference and adding value won’t take much. How about a simple home lunch with a host family? Asking a local to join you on a hike? Negotiating with a local artisan for a private demonstration and showing of his work? Not only do you create income for a local community you are delivering authentic and magical moments for your guests.

What level of responsibility does the tourism community have to involvement in these causes, versus just opportunity?

The days of bringing a 5-pound bag of candy into a community are thankfully over. Visiting a local school, bringing books or pens, and participating in a lesson or two with the class is a much more rewarding experience. Training and hiring local guides vs. showing up with a team of outsiders from the states not only provides much needed jobs, but an overall better experience for the guest as well.

Accepting our role as ambassadors, or better yet a bridge, is the key. Building a bridge between the locals, the guests, and the Western world is both an opportunity and a responsibility we must all embrace. They say knowledge is power. Education is key, and it works both ways. We have a chance to not only educate our guests to the ways of the “rest of the world”, but we have a chance to help educate “locals” on how they can provide services and experiences that can in turn provide the necessary funds to better their own lives in a completely sustainable way.  I always come back to, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” (can’t claim this one…. Chinese Proverb).

As an industry dedicated to the understanding and enjoyment of life, cultures, and our natural world, we need to be the leaders in this.