Charity July 2014

A ride for good

Cyclists support Tohoku community

  • 500km covered: the equivalent of London to Penzance, Cornwall
  • ¥5mn raised for new vegetable factory in Minamisanriku
  • Network of contacts and organisation skills were key

The route passed through areas still recovering from the disaster.

The route passed through areas still recovering from the disaster.

What makes a four-day, 500km bike ride by 20 fit—and not so fit—riders a success? I decided to go along for the ride to find out.

With ¥5mn raised, the Knights in White Lycra, riders on this adventurous mission, can be proud of their fundraising efforts. What started just last year as a group of cyclists who were keen to do good, is making a real impact. I started to think about why.

Noble cause
O.G.A. for Aid—a non-profit foundation that assists disaster survivors through education and business revitalisation—is raising funds for a vegetable-processing factory in Minamisanriku.

This project builds on the work the charity has already done in helping the town’s agriculture. It is an exciting prospect—a sustainable business for the community and a targeted cause.

John Stanton, supply chain director of British American Tobacco Japan, Ltd. (BATJ) believes O.G.A. for Aid fits perfectly with his firm’s corporate social responsibility activities—supporting and empowering sustainable local initiatives at the grass roots level.

BATJ showed their enthusiasm by making a substantial corporate donation and, thanks to Stanton’s passion, he was able to garner the support of employees.

Ian Smith, vice president of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., sees it similarly: “the sustainability component appears to have resonated”, he said.

The local contact
Arriving in Minamisanriku—a place none of us had heard of before the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 11 March—and being welcomed by a full mayoral reception and streets lined with flag-waving obaasan (older ladies), is probably as close to the Champs Elysees experience as many of the riders will get.

But, seeing the community—the people who will benefit and the place—is a connection that no charity dinner or video can offer. Once you smell the sea and the welcoming barbecue, you see what it really means.

And to the local people it means a lot. Community member Yuko Hoshi was enthusiastic. “People we don’t know support OGA, and OGA supports Minamisanriku, so we feel happy and encouraged”.

Who we are and how we do it
Twenty foreigners arriving in Minamisanriku is a big deal, as Hoshi explained on viewing the scene. “People were very surprised! It’s very unusual to hear about people riding all the way from Tokyo [to Minamisanriku] by bicycle. Maybe it’s because they are foreigners”.

In fact, the unusual event is thanks to a group of people—with desire, business skills, as well as business and social networks—who are good organisers.

The ride is one of a series of fundraisers, in an extensive calendar of events designed to ensure that no event is a one-off activity that is soon forgotten.

Even the planning—of the route, and organising the hotels, return transport, corporate sponsorship and logistical support—would not have been possible without a lot of time having been invested by a lot of people.

Stanton would like to take this work even further, and see whether he and his team could somehow lend their business and management expertise to OGA, perhaps as part of a management training programme.

“It would allow OGA to benefit from BAT’s corporate expertise, and be a valuable learning experience for BAT staff”, he said.

It is fun
Setting off from Ninhonbashi at 6:30am on a cold and rainy day may not be everyone’s idea of fun.

But who knew that northern Tochigi Prefecture—a cross between Tuscany and Dorset—is so beautiful, or that the Horai ravine, formed by the Abukuma river between Nihonmatsu and Fukushima City, has one of the most stunning roads imaginable along which one can ride.

Every day was an adventure and a challenge. For example, what should you do when the road ahead, on the bucolic route 73 linking Koriyama and Nihonmatsu, disappears after a bridge has collapsed? You walk across, carefully.

The feat was also an achievement; 500km would take you from London to Penzance, while the combined 10,000km covered by all the riders is more than the distance between London and Tokyo.

Moreover, what is not to like about a day that ends with a dip in an onsen, drinks and dinner, as well as a sense of achievement in aid of a good cause?

This is an activity that is worth supporting and, it is to be hoped, can continue to develop and make a real difference. Support is still needed, as the area recovers and both lives and communities are rebuilt.