The Green Wheels recently completed a yearlong round-the-world bike tour promoting renewable energy funded by microfinance. The team of three 21-year-old French students cycled across 32 countries, visiting 12 local projects that attempt to improve living conditions through clean energy. They set off from Paris on July 25, 2015 and returned home 365 days later after cycling 17,776 km! The group recently shared their experience with Europe & Me.
Roland, Maxence and Louis first met while studying at Warwick University in England. “Although we weren’t close friends at first, we bonded over a shared interest in social and environmental development”, recalls Louis. They were especially inspired by global initiatives that attempt to make the world a safer and cleaner place. Maxence explains, “We founded The Green Wheels based on the idea that small efforts can make a difference in the long term. This is why we chose to support businesses in developing countries which have helped their communities get better access to water, electricity or heating, using clean sources of energy. Microfinance was a great way to get involved because we could loan money to businesses that couldn’t access bank loans”. To finance the initiative, the team raised 40,000 Euros through fundraising and crowdfunding in the year leading up to their departure. They also formed partnerships with Entrepreneur du monde and Babyloan, two French microfinance organizations that helped them identify the appropriate businesses to support. Over the course of their travels, they met with 12 local entrepreneurs to observe their various initiatives, and provide partners back in France with a detailed on the ground overview of the projects.
They chose to travel by bike, because as Roland explains, “Bikes are the most sustainable means of transportation, and enabled us to be in closer contact with people we encountered along the way”. However, they sometimes needed to use other modes of transportation to cross an ocean, reach remote areas or circumnavigate ‘dangerous’ countries.
Central and South America
The group cycled first to Brussels, then flew to the Dominican Republic and cycled to Haiti. In Port au Prince they visited the first project, Palmis Eneji, one of four programs launched in Haiti by Entrepreneur du Monde in 2012. Roland describes why the project particularly struck them: “The business is run mostly by Haitians, with the help of some Entrepreneur du Monde employees. They produce and sell lamps and portable stoves that are charged by solar panels. These inexpensive appliances enable Haitians to meet basic needs using safe, clean products. We were amazed to see how such simple technology can help millions of people in one of the world’s poorest cities. Visiting this project gave us a lot of hope because we realized that people’s lives could really be improved thanks to modest initiatives that have a genuine environmental impact.
“We were amazed to see how such simple technology can help millions of people in one of the world’s poorest cities.”
From Port au Prince, the Green Wheels flew to Salvador and cycled south along Central and South America’s Pacific coast until they reached Santiago de Chile. In Salvador they experienced one of their scariest moments. Louis recounts: “As we were cycling along the road, we passed a dead man whose body was riddled with bullet holes. A local gang had obviously just shot him. We were shocked but what surprised us more was that none of the people around us seemed alarmed by what had happened. When we stopped at the closest convenience store, people told us there was nothing to worry about because this happened regularly.” The three young men are terribly saddened by this episode because they were confronted with the reality that many people live in places where this kind of violence is banal.
In Nicaragua, the Green Wheels met two New Zealanders who made a real impact on their trip. Maxence describes the encounter: “We met two guys that had biked from Alaska and were making their way down to Patagonia. We were fortunate to meet them at the beginning of our adventure because they gave us so many useful tips about biking. They helped us better prepare for the rest of our journey. The three weeks we cycled together were thrilling and we are forever grateful for all of their support. We really hope to get a chance to see them again.”
Crossing the Andes in South America was the Green Wheels’ toughest biking experience. Roland describes the ordeal: “For three days we cycled 8 hours per day up remote winding dirt roads to cross the world’s longest mountain chain. The route was steep and we were often short of breath but the landscapes were absolutely beautiful. On our third day, we reached 4450 meters but were caught in a snowstorm. We were short of water and food and had to put up our tent because weather conditions prevented us from going any further. This was our worst night of the year but when we woke up the next morning we crossed a salt desert, which was among of the most beautiful things we have ever seen.” Although this was the most challenging segment of the journey, they now remember it as an exhilarating moment.
From Australia to Europe
After three months on the American continent, the Green Wheels flew to Australia, where they cycled from Sydney to Melbourne. After a short layover in Australia, they flew to Vietnam. “Arriving in Vietnam was so exciting because we knew, from that point on, we were making our way back to Europe” Louis says. They crossed parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar before travelling to India. Maxence recounts a story from their time in Myanmar: “Travelling through Myanmar was both exciting and stressful. Because the country just recently opened up to tourism, it is extremely difficult to travel freely on bikes the way we did in other countries. So we decided to buy a pirogue to travel the 800 kms along the Irrawaddy River to Rangoon. We tried to be discreet but when we arrived in the capital, we were told that all of the city’s police were after us. It was terrifying at the time, but it all worked out after we told the police everything about our journey”. In retrospect, the three realize how fortunate they were to have made it out without repercussions.
After this episode the Green Wheels flew to India, where they cycled across the Northern part of the country from Calcutta to New Delhi. In Calcutta they visited another project they found remarkable. A Belgium and an Australian working with locals run a project named ‘Pollinate Energy’ that sells solar lamps across the city. Louis describes it: “Their effort to provide poor citizens with access to electricity thanks to these lamps is really impressive. They have also successfully convinced a lot of Indians to switch from using kerosene lamps, which are extremely harmful for both people and the environment. Pollinate Energy are doing an incredible job in the area and have been able to really promote the use of renewable energy among a population that is not particularly aware of global environmental issues.
“While we were travelling through foreign countries, we realized that we felt more European than French.”
From New Delhi, the trio flew to Iran. From Teheran they cycled north towards the Black Sea, where they embarked on a cargo-ship for a 3 day crossing between Georgia and Bulgaria. They boys claim they never felt happier being in Europe than the day they disembarked from that ship. “As soon as we got off the ship, we felt like we were home. We were more excited the day we arrived in Bulgaria than when we crossed from Italy to France. We could sense we were among people with whom we shared values and ideals,” Maxence claims.
In fact, the three agree that during the trip, their European identities became more evident. As Roland describes it “While we were travelling through foreign countries, we realized that we felt more European than French. From having lived in France, studied in England and travelled across the continent, we admire how Europe can be diverse and homogenous at the same time. We now realize, after having travelled in different areas of the world, how this really is unique to Europe.” This trip also made them increasingly grateful for living in a clean and safe environment.
The Green Wheel’s adventure reminds us how small initiatives can make a big difference for the environment and for those most in need. The students’ encounters with imaginative entrepreneurs across the globe highlight the extent to which modest local projects can improve access to electricity, water and heating, while having a positive environmental impact. The Green Wheels hope to spread the message further by finding other motivated students to perpetuate the initiative. Ideally, they would like to create an opportunity for students from less privileged backgrounds than their own to take on the project, because Roland, Maxence and Louis believe everyone should have a chance to undertake such a life-changing challenge.
Cover photo: The Green Wheels