Everything had been going according to plan. The three Bucknell students were just weeks away from delivering 33 bicycles and carts to families in the rural community of Tchada, in Baleng village in western Cameroon. The bikes would provide much-needed transportation resources — and thus income potential — to families who carry commodities to market by hand, sometimes lugging cassava, yams or maize up to 20 kilometers to market. Then, in May, the terrorist group Boko Haram invaded northern Cameroon, prompting the U.S. Department of State to issue a travel warning.
Suddenly, months of planning unraveled. Leo Fotsing Fomba '16, Zwelani Ngwenya '15 and Chanda Singoyi '17 had to scramble to rethink their 2014 Davis Project for Peace.
"I thought it would be amazing to see how the social dynamic would change over time if families were given the opportunity to have better transportation," said project leader Fomba, a global management major from western Cameroon. He remembers his grandmother carrying pounds of produce from farm to home to market in order to feed her family.
In fall 2013, he had enlisted two close friends, Ngwenya and Singoyi, to help him develop the project "A Better Transportation Decreases Poverty Gap." Together, they identified an affordable supplier, enlisted a steering committee to oversee the project in Tchada and worked out a sustainable microfinance model. In addition to a $10,000 Projects for Peace award, they received support through Bucknell's Accenture Innovation & Entrepreneurship Fellowship and the E.M. Brawley Fund. The group had even made plans to meet the king of Baleng. But the terrorist activities in the north of Cameroon meant that the students had to find a different community in a different country and start nearly from scratch.
"That's when the hard work began," said Singoyi, a civil engineering major.
Fomba and Ngwenya decided to stay at Bucknell and collaborate remotely with Singoyi, home in Zambia. Since Singoyi lived close to the village of Singani, where many families do not have access to transportation, and understood the local customs and the Chitonga language, they chose it as the new location.
Bucknell's Director of International Student Services Jennifer Figueroa advised the students as they regrouped. "They pulled together as a team, worked hard to identify various viable alternatives and then pitched the alternatives professionally," she said.
The students found a new supplier for about the same cost. They got buy-in from the village leaders and recruited a new steering committee to run and monitor the project after launch. And they evaluated more than 100 applications to determine which 33 families had the most need.
"That was difficult," said Singoyi. "This is a project for peace. If you create inequality, it becomes a conflict project."
In September, the equipment was distributed in Singani — and it is already making a difference. For instance, families are using the carts to transport children to and from school.
"The carts have helped families to increase their income, which allows them pay for school, which affords the children an education," said Ngwenya.
The students credit Bucknell faculty, staff and alumni with offering vital guidance throughout the project planning process.
In addition to Figueroa, the students say David Foreman, director of corporate and foundation relations, offered "huge support" to them as they developed and then revised their proposal to Davis Projects for Peace. Professor Jordi Comas, management, provided the students with information on social enterprise.
"He gave us materials on how to become an effective mentor for communities and how to implement strategies that people really need," said Fomba.
"Learning about Muyambi and his work with BAP actually convinced me to come to Bucknell," said Fomba.
Fomba, Ngwenya and Singoyi say that if the families repay their microloans within six months, the project can distribute 268 more bikes. They plan to go to Zambia next summer to assess the project's impact on the families and determine whether it has increased their income and opportunities in life. They also hope to expand to other countries, including Nigeria and Chad.
Some day, when it is safe, they hope to give equipment to the 33 families they originally wanted to help in Tchada.
"The day we can go back and deliver the bikes to them, we can say we're succeeding," said Ngwenya.
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