My Startup: The Bike Project

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

Transport in London can be cripplingly expensive. The Bike Project supports refugees who might have nothing else.

The Project takes second-hand bicycles, fix them up, and give them to the refugees who need affordable transportation methods. It was set up by Jem Stein who saw how an asylum seeker he mentored thrived after being given a refurbished cycle.

Discussion around asylum seekers and refugees is still one of the most pressing topics today, and there's always more people for The Bike Project to help. With plans for upcoming expansion, they want to be able to help as many people around the country as possible.

Founder: Jem Stein

Founded: 2013


We spoke to Jem to get the inside track on The Bike Project.

Why did you start The Bike Project?

When I was at university, I volunteered as a mentor to Adam, a young asylum seeker from Darfur. Housed in accommodation miles from the centre of the city, Adam couldn't afford to travel by public transport every day.

In London, a bus pass costs £21.20 a week, but asylum seekers have to scrape by on weekly support from the government of just £37.75. They can't work until they're granted official refugee status - a process that can take years. I saw first-hand how difficult it was for Adam to access the services he needed, like education, healthcare, food banks and legal advice.

Luckily, my brother gave me an old bike which I refurbished and gave to Adam. It made a huge difference to his life, so when I graduated, I started collecting bikes, doing them up in my spare time and giving them away.

A simple but very effective idea that I turned into a full-time project five years ago.

Tell us more about (the tech behind) the product?

When the refugee crisis hit in 2015, demand for our bikes went from around 10 or 15 per week to 50 or 60. People were literally queuing around the block and it was chaos, total mayhem. It was incredibly stressful for everyone involved and we knew we needed to change things very quickly.

We were already using Salesforce to register and stay in touch with beneficiaries, so it was a straightforward decision to build a waiting list and alert system on top of that.

We've got a simple application form on our website where refugees can register their interest in a bike, giving details like their name, contact details and height - crucial for making sure they get the right size bike!

Once those details are in the system, beneficiaries are kept informed of their position on the waiting list via SMS text messages sent using Twilio. When an appropriate bike becomes available, they're sent an appointment time and a Google Maps pin-drop link to our workshop.

If they miss their appointment, they get an automated Twilio SMS to check in with them and ask if they’d like to rebook.

Where are you at right now?

Over the last five years, we've distributed more than 4,200 bikes to refugees, including 1,200 in 2018. 230 refugee women have also graduated from our Pedal Power programme, and we've made more than 70 Bike Buddy matches, bringing refugees and their new neighbours together over a shared loved of cycling.

Technology like Salesforce and Twilio has really helped us help refugees by giving them their own low-cost mode of transport so that they can freely participate and integrate into society.

For many people, a bicycle represents a freedom and independence that they thought they had lost.

What are your aims for the next year?

This May we're launching a second Bike Project in Birmingham, the home of the UK's third-largest population of asylum seekers.

This year in Birmingham we're aiming to donate 300 bikes and give cycle training to 40 female refugees. We'll also replicate our highly successful Build a Bike workshops, encouraging volunteering from members of the local community as well as refugees and asylum seekers.

We'll also be using the Birmingham workshop to refurbish second-hand bikes for sale to the general public. We're aiming for the Birmingham project to be self-sustaining with minimum reliance on grants in four years.

And, of course, we'll continue to expand our work in London, making sure that we get even more refugees cycling in the capital.

What's been the hardest thing about getting The Bike Project off the ground?

I remember chatting to my mum about doing The Bike Project and saying that it was just one project, how hard could it be? I suppose I didn't know quite how much it would dominate my life - and maybe if I had known I wouldn't have had the courage to start!

To be honest, though, none of it has been 'hard' because it's all been so rewarding. I know that's a cop-out answer, but it's true as well! From that first bike I gave to Adam to the 40-odd bike that we donated last Thursday, we've always kept our eyes on our mission to get refugees cycling - and that makes all the hard things seem easy.

Why should more people use your product?

Asylum-seekers come to this country with nothing; many have faced persecution and torture in their country of origin. When they get here, they are prevented from finding employment, and forced to live on around £36 a week in asylum support.

London is a city that's rich in opportunities. A bike can help these people reach the many resources that London has to offer: charities that can feed them, lawyers to aid their application process, Home Office appointments, healthcare, education and much more.

Refugee women in particular often have hardly any experience of cycling, as it may not be encouraged in their home country. So we also run a women-only project, where they can learn to ride in a warm, supportive environment. Their confidence grows as they learn to ride safely, while meeting like-minded people and making friends.

Do you believe you are filling a gap in the market?

Absolutely, yes. As we can see from our growing waiting list, there's a huge demand for bikes among refugees and asylum seekers and we're fulfilling that need.

What makes us a bit different is that we have a fully professional workshop that guarantees the quality of the bikes we give to our beneficiaries.

The fact that we also sell bikes to the general public means that our basic costs are covered and we can use grant money to expand our services by offering cycle training, a befriending programme - and of course our new project in Birmingham.

What challenges have you faced? How did you overcome them? 

Giving bikes to refugees sounds so simple, but it's amazing about how complicated a simple idea can get. We've faced challenges of every conceivable shape and size, from how to find the perfect workshop space, to how to give a fundraising pitch in front of big name comedians!

No matter what the challenge, we got through them all the same way: by rallying around and asking for help. Even today, I still ask advice from my entrepreneurial mentors and I'm incredibly grateful to everyone who helped the project through those difficult early days.

The Bike Project has completely dominated my life for the past five years, but I've grown a huge amount in terms of confidence and skills in every single way – and the project is going from strength to strength too. That's the most important thing.