(CNN) — Mambwe Kaemba fastens her helmet, pulls on her gloves and rides her red Yamaha motorcycle out of the courtyard of the Ministry of Health. She has already done the daily checks on her motorcycle. Yes, the chain is adjusted correctly, she has fuel and oil. She’s now set for a day vaccinating newborns. Her journey will take her over an unmade, potholed track that she has been trained to navigate with ease on her little bike.
Kaemba is a health worker in Southern Province, Zambia. She serves about 6,000 people spread over a 20 kilometer area. The fact that she has any kind of transport at all marks her out as being very unusual.
When we first met health workers like Kaemba, they told us that when they didn’t have a bike — which was most of the time — or, when they have a bike and that it had broken down — almost always — they couldn’t do the job they had been trained for.
The health workers who serve rural communities in Africa are some of the most dedicated people in the world. They don’t earn much money and often have to live hundreds of miles away from their families. They know that there are people in remote villages who need their help and, when they can’t reach them, it’s a big burden for them to carry.
Often they will walk. Walk for hours at a time. In the sun or rain, across tough terrain, carrying whatever they can manage. They arrive exhausted, knowing that they do not have long before they must return home.
It was frustrating to see health workers like Kaemba unable to do their jobs, and women and children who struggle to walk for miles to reach a health center when they get sick.
There were motorcycles and ambulances that were broken and rusting, simply because no one was trained on how to look after them properly.
This was 20 years ago. The situation was unacceptable and made us angry. It is why we re-mortgaged our home and gave up our careers to start Riders for Health. We took big risks to develop an organization that would try to change the status quo.
We knew we could make a difference. It would involve people getting their hands dirty and dealing with spanners and spark plugs and things not normally associated with health care. But this was just as important as investing billions of dollars in developing a new vaccine. Because if the vaccine never reaches the child, what good is it?
We started working with our friends and colleagues in the world of motorcycles. To this day, they continue to support our work.
We also began working with ministries of health in African countries to put in place technicians, systems for delivering replacement parts and fuel, and training health workers how to look after their …