RICHARD Evans' world revolves around bikes.

He runs the bike cafe in Colchester and the Dr Bike repair and maintenance workshops at the University of Essex.

He also runs the workshop of Re-Cycle, the charity which collects bikes to distribute in Africa.

But while Richard is fully aware of the virtues of two-wheeled mode of transport, until he visited Africa, he never truly realised their worth.

Re-Cycle was set up in 1998, the brain child of Merlin Matthews.

While he was at university in London, Merlin used to fix bikes for friends.

He was asked about setting up a bike factory in Haiti where people had to walk long distances to get food and water.

Merlin set up Re-Cycle with the ambition of sending abandoned bikes, left rusting in garages, to places where they could be put to good use.

The acorn of an idea grew to oak tree proportions and 15 years on, more than 49,000 bikes have been sent out to Africa.

The operation now runs from a spacious warehouse on Severalls Industrial Estate in Colchester.

Scores of bikes are stacked up awaiting shipment to Africa.

In the workshops, staff and volunteers repair bikes and ensure they are up to standard.

Those beyond repair are stripped back for parts. Spare parts are valuable in Africa and keep the wheels of industry turning - literally.

Anything left after that is sold for scrap and the money used to pay for containers of 450 bikes to be shipped abroad.

Bikes come from across the country to the centre - the charity recently received 400 from Guernsey and the same from the Isle of Wight.

It has also benefited from national company Halfords' bike trade-in scheme, receiving the bikes which the public don't want.

The Post Office, too, has been a good friend to Re-Cycle giving the group bikes which are no longer fit for the purpose.

Workshops have been set up in six African countries - Ghana, Namibia, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia and Kenya.

The workshops generate employment both directly and indirectly.

Rural Africa has no public transport system and the working bikes are used by people trying to get to work, hospital, school and market.

In workshops, bikes are repaired and serviced by trained bike mechanics.

Richard has been with Re-Cycle for five years but has just returned from his first trip to see the charity's work in action.

He said: "To be honest, I had little idea of how things worked out there.

"I knew what we did but not how life in Africa worked and how important the bikes are.

"The bikes are a lifeline in many places. It is amazing to see people riding bikes which probably would have been scrapped here.

"But they keep the bikes going and it means they don't have to walk miles to work. They can get there in half the time on a bike.

"They mean children are not having to walk six kms to school. It means they can study for longer and have more opportunities in life.

"Some people convert their bikes to carry huge loads.

"In Zambia especially, farming is very much hand to mouth but with bikes, farmers can take their produce to market. It is really important for the economy."

The bikes have to be robust and mountain and former Post Office bikes are worth their weight in gold.

The world is developing fast and the infrastructure in parts of Africa is improving - but there is still some way to go.

"Roads have been built and people have access to larger locations but as soon as you come off the main roads they quickly turn into dirt tracks. Then you come off those and the roads are really rutted.

"I did a 15 km ride and you could feel your fillings falling out."

In Kenya, Richard, 37, of Albert Street, Colchester, oversaw the training of mechanics.

"They rely on us for spares," he said. "It is extremely hard and expensive to get hold of parts to maintain bikes.

"They use everything. They recycle things you don't think can be repaired.

"There was a guy who took gear shifters which we would have thrown away in this country.

"He stripped them back and rebuilt them."

A new workshop is being set up in Nairobi next year meaning more bikes can be shipped over, used and maintained.

For many people in Africa, a bike can be a first step out of poverty and towards a better life.

All sent from Colchester - a world away but united in one aim.

* Anyone wanting to donate a bike can take it to Re-Cycle at Unit 2 Gunfleet Business Park, Brunel Way, Severalls Business Park, Colchester, CO4 9QX. For more information, call 01206 841268.