When Andrea Coleman bought her first motorcycle six months before her 16th birthday, all she wanted to do was escape her “funny little suburb” outside London. Now, almost 50 years later, she is being credited with using motorcycles to revolutionise Africa's transport and health systems. The mother- of-three will receive the Barclays Women of the Year award at the 59th annual Women of the Year Lunch on 16 October.
Coleman is not your usual global health pioneer. She left school at 16 and did not sit an academic exam until her forties. She gained notoriety in Britain in the early 1970s as one of only a few female motorcycle racers but now, she wants us to “rethink the way we are going to do development”.
She said: “Too much of it has been, 'I really don't like the way you have to live, so I am going to raise all this money and give you this thing.'
“But it has to be a partnership, a conversation.”
People are listening. Coleman's plans to found a social enterprise blossomed after she swapped the race tracks for sub-Saharan Africa's dirt tracks in the late 1980s and saw how broken-down vehicles were preventing women from accessing health care. She realised that maintaining fleets of motorcycles in the region could change lives.
Riders for Health, founded with her husband Barry Coleman, employs 400 staff worldwide and operates 1700 vehicles across seven countries in Africa, transforming health care for 14 million people.
Partners - governments or NGOs - pay them to provide and run their vehicles, as well as to train people to maintain them. Mobilised health workers can reach six times as many people as those on foot, doubling the time that they spend in communities.
An estimated 2.9 million more people saw a health worker in 2012, as a result.
The organisation is in charge of all the Gambia's national fleet of health-care vehicles, including 38 four-wheeled ambulances. Many of the Muslim women health workers there put on their overalls and boots over their traditional dress.
Coleman says that her organisation represents “the greasy hands, practical part of medicine,” but argues that logistics are essential.
“You've got to maintain things,” she explained, “you've got to be able to reach people, and you've got to know what things cost.
“We didn't know anything about global health when we started. I didn't do an international development degree or anything like that, but we do something really practical. There is no point spending billions of dollars developing a new drug when you can't get it to the person who needs it.”
The death of Coleman's first husband, Northern Irish motorcycling champion Tom Herron, who was killed in a racing accident in 1979, changed her life and that of her two daughters Kim and Zoe overnight.
“One minute you've got this life, charging about, managing teams and managing your girls and then all of a sudden, it kind of stops,” she said.
But despite her anger at “shabby” race safety measures that resulted in her first husband's death, motorcycle racing now plays a significant fundraising role. Nine-times world champion Valentino Rossi alone has raised about £250 000 (R3.95 million).
“In a way, that’s what I'm most proud of,” Coleman said. “It's the only sport I know of that's created a kind of movement. It's used what's in it to change people's lives.” - The Independent on Sunday