In 2010, when Nigerian women bikers Nnenna Samuila and Jeminat Olumegbon officially registered the D’Angels Motorcycle Club, Nigeria first all-female motorbikers club, they had their sights set on a bigger goal. “The goal was to unite like-minded women to work together to make an impact on society,” says Olumegbon, an events manager in Lagos. As they whizz along the streets and thoroughfares and alleyways of the commercial city of Lagos, members of the club noticed how people watched them with admiration. And looking around them, they saw cultural biases dictating that women should be at home, raising children, and how other barriers, such as early marriage and sexual abuse, limit the amount of progress young women can make.

Nigeria continues to wrestle with a high rate of early pregnancy – 23 percent of teenagers have their first child before the age of 19. To address this issue, D’Angels launched a project, which they named “Beyond Limits”. It aims to help girls reach their full potential. They visit secondary schools to motivate young girls and teach them about issues such as sexual abuse and how they can fight back. They also invite women who work in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to give talks.

This – getting girls and women into STEM – matters.

Although Nigeria’s tech industry is booming (investment in the country’s industry averaged US$73 000 last year), the sector is heavily dominated by men. Encouraging girls to pursue careers in these fields would help to close the gender gap and break down stereotypes.

Raising health awareness by bike

The thrill of reaching out to young girls inspired an even higher cause: raising health awareness across Africa’s most populous nation – on motorbikes.

Samuila and Olumegbon combined forces with other female bikers in Nigeria and some West African countries to start the Female Bikers Initiative (FBI) in August last year to address the numerous problems afflicting women.

Spreading awareness about breast and cervical cancer on the streets. Photo: Female Bikers Initiative/Facebook

“We came together to ask ourselves what we can do to give back to society,” says Olumegbon, who did a month-long, 12 000 km ride through eight West African countries in 2015 to raise funds for children in orphanages.

Olumegbon did a month-long, 12 000 km motorbike ride through eight West African countries to raise funds for children in orphanages.

“A woman riding a bike easily attracts attention – and now that I have your attention, you have to listen to what I have to say.”

A top priority

At the top of their list of priorities is fighting breast and cervical cancer among women. Last year, the FBI’s Cancer Awareness Ride, which culminated in a gala night that featured musical performances by local artistes and a fashion auction, enabled the group to raise funds from corporations and individuals.

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They then worked with Optimal Cancer Care Foundation and Sebeccly Cancer Care to provide free breast and cervical cancer screening to 500 women in the coastal city of Lagos. One of the events last year was a bike ride to the University of Lagos, where they gave a talk on breast and cervical cancer.

A member of the FBI. Photo: Female Bikers Initiative/Facebook

Africa’s growing cancer epidemic is troubling, particularly as it competes with the continent’s other health-care needs. Cancer is estimated to account for about 9.6 million deaths this year. Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women worldwide and in developing countries like Nigeria it is a major killer.

The high prevalence of late-stage presentation means that awareness programmes are needed.

Part of the problem is that the majority of women present their cases at a late stage. This is largely due to a lack of awareness – people often think that cancer is a disease for the elderly. Even when they do seek treatment, poor equipment and facilities prevent a rapid diagnosis and treatment. The WHO estimates that more than 100 000 Nigerians are diagnosed with cancer each year, while 80 000 die from the disease.

This prevalence of late-stage presentation means that awareness programmes are needed.

Raising awareness of the importance of cancer prevention

Having built up an awareness-raising programme that travels around Nigeria, explaining the signs of cancer and telling people how to prevent cancer through vaccination and screening, the FBI is strongly pushing to promote prevention, early diagnosis and screening for women.

This year, the all-female bikers’ group is targeting 5 000 women. It organised an awareness campaign where bikers rode through streets and public parks and provided free screening for women in August. So far, it has reached more than 2 000 women across Nigeria. More women will continue to receive free screening until the end of the year.

Read: Meet Samuel Achilefu: The Nigerian On A Mission To See And Kill Cancer Using Light

Usually, after screening, the female bikers try to fund treatment for women who require further care, such as cryotherapy, a method of medical therapy involving exposure to extremely low temperatures. Last year the FBI funded two mastectomies from the funds it raised.

The FBI has well over 70 bikers, largely from Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. It recruits local women in each of the towns or villages where they do their work to help spread the importance of screening to women and girls around them.

Female Bikers Initiative members. Photo: Female Bikers Initiative/Facebook

Just like the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, members of the motorbikers group are known as “agents”. To become an “FBI agent”, you have to fill out a membership form on the website and produce a one-minute video encouraging women to get screened.

In addition to cancer, the bikers also support other health projects targeting women. In June, it partnered with the International Women’s Society to give talks on how to age gracefully. They were able to visit hospital wards and provide reading materials like magazines and novels to patients.

Despite their progress so far, the bikers are hungry for more. “In the next five years we want to have a standalone clinic that would care for women with breast and cervical cancer and provide group support for women,” Olumegbon says. “We want to be the one-stop shop for women’s health issues.”