The Pikala Bikes initiative in Morocco

More mobility, more confidence, more freedom

In Morocco, the bicycle is considered a poor man's means of transport. What's more, cycling tends to be a male-only affair. The Pikala bike initiative in Marrakesh seeks to change all this. By Marian Brehmer

Riding a bicycle in the maze of alleys of Marrakesh's old city is not for the faint of heart. Cyclists have to avoid mules, as well as sleeping dogs, merchants with fruit carts, and passersby lingering to chat with neighbours. The air is filled with the smell of gasoline from motorised two-wheelers, making it difficult to breathe. In Morocco, the bicycle is generally considered a poor man's means of transportation. If you care for your reputation, you are motorised.

Yet the city is actually made for getting around on two wheels. "Marrakesh is an ideal cycling city. It's flat and bursting with energy," says Cantal Bakker, leaning on her favourite bike, a time-honoured Dutch bicycle. The bike enthusiast from The Hague pedalled in Marrakesh for the first time in 2014. She quickly fell in love with the city, gave up her art degree and decided to stay in Morocco. Gradually, she developed a vision of how bicycles could help solve employment and mobility problems in Marrakesh.

She took her idea of turning Marrakesh into a bicycle city all the way to the Moroccan Ministry of Transport. "I quickly realised that there was a lot of chaos in many places. But chaos also means there's plenty of opportunity, as well as space to get things done. In Holland, however, a new bike path is planned down to the centimetre. There's not that much room to manoeuvre."

Khaoula El Haidi teaches young women to ride a bicycle, Pikala Bikes, Marrakech, Morocco (photo: Marian Brehmer)
"It's much easier than you think. You just have to dare!" Khaoula El Haidi (left, on the bicycle) teaches young women to ride a bicycle at the Pikala initiative. El Haidi knows that learning this skill gives her pupils more than just the ability to cycle: "I show them how to take control of their bike on the street. But this is only the first step. Maybe one day they will run their own companies and families."

Project HQ in a waste-sorting facility

Mopeds and flatbed trucks rattle along the main road where Bakker's project is located. A donkey brays in the distance. Every now and then a bicycle rolls by. With perseverance and insistence, Bakker managed to convince the mayor to give her initiative, which she called "Pikala", a disused waste-sorting facility on the edge of the Medina – the old town of Marrakesh.

"Pikala" simply means "bicycle" in Darija – the Moroccan colloquial Arabic – and alludes to the no-frills mission of the five-year-old initiative: to popularise the bicycle in the streets of Marrakesh and, at the same time, create job prospects for young Moroccans. Such job opportunities are urgently needed: almost half of the Moroccan population is under 25, the average age being around 29. At last count, youth unemployment was over 30 percent.

Recycling is still part of Pikala's project philosophy: tools, chairs and tables are all second-hand. Just like the 300 bicycles, most of which are abandoned bikes from the streets of Amsterdam and The Hague, which were saved from being scrapped and taken to Morocco by container ship. "We have more bikes in Holland than people," laughs Bakker. "Here in Marrakesh, the old bikes are now getting a second life."

Before the coronavirus pandemic, group tours for tourists took off from the project's headquarters every day. Led by local youths, those tours took tourists to places off the beaten track, such as the Sufi shrine of Sidi El-Abbas, one of the seven patron saints of Marrakesh, a traditional neighbourhood bakery and, of course, the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakesh's iconic fairground with its jugglers, musicians and snake charmers.

A young man during a mechanics lesson, Pikala Bikes, Marrakech, Morocco (photo: Marian Brehmer)
Thirty young Moroccans have already found work at Pikala – as trainers, mechanics, food suppliers, in accounting and administration, or as tour guides. Pictured here: a young man during a mechanics lesson at Pikala. According to Marian Brehmer, volunteers on Pikala bicycles worked as couriers during the lockdowns, distributing essential food to households

Reducing pressure on infrastructure

In addition to being environmentally friendly, cycling has great potential to relieve the chaotic traffic in many Moroccan cities. Almost two-thirds of Morocco's population now live in cities. "The bicycle as a climate-neutral means of transport can help to reduce the pressure on infrastructure," says Cantal Bakker. Almost two-thirds of Moroccans now live in cities, which is why sustainable solutions are urgently needed.

Another aspect of Pikala is the regular cycling lessons for young Moroccan women in their teens. One of the trainers is Khaoula El Haidi, who wears a pine-green headscarf, a down jacket and sneakers. The 23-year-old hopes that the two dozen young women in her class will fall in love with the bicycle like she once did. From her own experience, she knows that the first few pedal strokes are difficult, especially in a culture where riding a bicycle is rarely part of growing up, especially for girls.

Sitting on the curb opposite their trainer in the small park next to the project's headquarters, the young women are dressed comfortably in sporty clothes. In a moment, the female students from the University of Marrakesh will take their first laps on a bike. Most of them come from villages on the edges of the Atlas Mountains and have never been on a bike before. They are studying medicine, physics, English and philosophy in their first year and have one thing in common: the will to bring more mobility into their lives.

"It's much easier than you think," El Haidi calls out to her audience. "You just have to dare!" Then it's on to the practice. "Better tie your skirt," El Haidi advises a beginner who is visibly nervous putting her feet on the pedals. The young Moroccan woman starts moving unsteadily. The wheels lurch. Her balance is not quite right yet. El Haidi walks alongside, supporting her pupil. She is shy and giggles a little, but El Haidi is patient. "Take a deep breath," she says, "you're doing fine. It's not about learning as fast as possible."

Young women pose for photos with a bicycle, Pikala Bikes, Marrakech, Morocco (photo: Marian Brehmer)
"With its bike tour concept, Pikala has brought a breath of fresh air into Morocco's innovation-poor tourism industry," writes Marian Brehmer. "Before the global epidemic, hundreds of tourists took part in the rides through the old city every month. In the future, if all goes according to plan, Pikala hopes to expand to other Moroccan regions". Pictured here: young women pose for a photo with a Pikala bike

Opening up the world by bike

Often, female students from the countryside lack self-confidence, says El Haidi. "The bicycle is a tool for us to open the young women to the world," she adds in almost accent-free spoken English. "I show them how to take control of their bike on the street. But this is only the first step. Maybe one day they will run their own companies and families."

El Haidi is from the coastal town of Safi about 160 kilometres west of Marrakesh. There she already rode a bike as a young girl. This, however, is an exception rather then the rule in Morocco. Especially in conservative circles, a woman riding a bicycle is considered a breach of morals. The radius of movement of many young Moroccan women is therefore often limited to home and school. Leisure time is largely spent within their own four walls.

Physical work is mostly done by men, and women often lack opportunities for exercise. In many parts of Marrakesh, public spaces are considered unsuitable for girls – too noisy, too dirty, too dangerous. Fearing sexual harassment, many parents prefer to drive their daughters around the city by car rather than let them walk alone. For poorer families who do not own a vehicle, this can even become a reason to stop sending their daughters to school. The bicycle, on the other hand, not only gives young women freedom of movement, but also a sense of security. In Pikala's training programme, the female students learn basic traffic rules and receive a basic first aid course.

Pikala's bicycle workshop is next door. "What is a bicycle made of?" asks a poster hanging next to the workshop. Here, three teenage boys are taking mechanics lessons. Concentrated on their work, they bend over a bicycle dangling from hooks. One of them tightens the nut that fixes the mudguard. Besides mountain bikes and tandems, most of the bicycles are classic Dutch bikes without gears.

Cantal Bakker, founder of the Pikala bicycle project, Marrakech, Morocco (photo: Marian Brehmer)
Cantal Bakker (above) is the founder of the Pikala bicycle project in Marrakech. Bakker, originally from The Hague, first cycled in Marrakech in 2014. She fell in love with the city and decided to stay. Over time, she developed the idea behind the Pikala Bicycle initiative, which is much more than just an eco-tourism company

Bicycle couriers during lockdown

Thirty young Moroccans have already found work at Pikala – as trainers, mechanics, food suppliers, in accounting and administration, or as tour guides. During the lockdowns, volunteers on Pikala bicycles worked as couriers, distributing essential food to households. In this way, the project is both a place to acquire practical skills and a first rung on the career ladder. After a few months of involvement in the NGO, some of the young people have already been hired by companies or successfully applied for a place at universities in Europe.

Soukhaina Rhafiri is one of the young women who hopes to gain momentum for her career with Pikala. "For a long time, I was reluctant to get on a bicycle," says Rhafiri, who has been leading bicycle tours for foreign visitors through the Medina for a year as one of six Pikala guides. The poor people's image put her off at first, she says. Rhafiri, who studied English literature for her bachelor's degree, wears make-up, a high-visibility vest and an elegantly draped scarf. Then her perspective on cycling changed. "I am proud to guide tourists around my city now." Her uncle is also a tour guide. So far, she says, there are far too few women in tourism jobs in Morocco. With Pikala as a springboard, she wants to start her own travel agency in the future.

Then Rhafiri brings a round tray with a pot of the ubiquitous sugary Moroccan mint tea. The guests for the next tour – from South Africa, Norway, England and Germany – are already waiting. After the welcome tea, the tourists are assigned their bikes. A little hesitantly, they roll behind Rhafiri into the middle of the traffic chaos of passers-by, tin vehicles, motorbikes and donkey carts. They look almost as awkward as the female students in El Haidi's course.

With its bike tour concept, Pikala has brought a breath of fresh air into Morocco's innovation-poor tourism industry. The activity is advertised in guidebooks like the "Lonely Planet". Before the global epidemic, hundreds of tourists took part in the rides through the old city every month. In the future, if all goes according to plan, Pikala hopes to expand to other Moroccan regions – first to the fashionable coastal cities of Essaouira and Agadir; then perhaps to other areas of the country. The coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on these plans for now, but Pikala is already considered a model project beyond the city limits of Marrakesh.

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2021

More on this topic