Building bamboo bikes in Africa


“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”
Bruce Lee, martial artist and filmmaker, 1940-1973

As one who lived in Africa for 7 1/2 years — in Nairobi, Kenya, and Johannesburg, South Africa — I’m deeply impressed by the resourcefulness of Africans.

String-bag soccer ball

They seem to be able to recycle or “repurpose” just about anything, particularly the detritus of our throw-away consumer society. Old tires are fashioned into footwear. Aluminum cans and plastic bottles become everything from toys to building materials. A string bag stuffed with discarded plastic sacks and tied tightly can serve as a soccer ball.
You can always find a fundi — a Swahili word that translates roughly as craftsman — to fix anything from a floor fan to a toaster. And “shade-tree mechanics” are readily available to get an ailing car back onto the road.
So it was no surprise to read that Africans are building bamboo bicycles across the continent — from Ghana in West Africa to Uganda and Zambia in the east. But the most ambitious project seems to be under way at a factory in Kumasi, Ghana.
I’ve written previously in this blog about bamboo, readily available in tropical Africa, as a strong, lightweight material suitable for bicycle frames. (See Aug. 13 post, “It’s not just panda food.”)
The Earth Institute of Columbia University in New York reported Jan. 18 that its Bamboo Bike Project has launched a two-week-long bamboo bike-training program to begin production of 750 bikes for a test run at the factory in Kumasi.
“The training program will culminate in the creation of the first large-scale bamboo bike production factory in the world, with ambitions of producing up to 20,000 affordable bikes a year to serve the transportation needs of the rural poor in Ghana,” said a news release from the Earth Institute.

Bamboo bikes from Ghana

“This effort will create jobs and incomes for the community, and a quality product for consumers,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, was quoted as saying.
The Bamboo Bike Project has been working in Ghana for more than three years. It established a partnership with a Ghanaian company, Bamboo Bikes Ltd., and brought in expertise from Bamboo Bike Studio, a Brooklyn-based operation that focuses on customers building their own bamboo bikes from kits.
In Ghana, Bamboo Bikes Ltd. will manage the production facility and supply the labor, bamboo and bicycle components for the test run and subsequent mass production. It will also be responsible for operational matters, as well as marketing and outreach efforts in Ghana.
“This is the moment we have been working toward for many months,” said John Mutter, director of the Bamboo Bike Project at Columbia.

Work stations at the Kumasi factory

“Finally, everything is in place to get production of bamboo bikes going the way we had always dreamed of — in Africa, by Africans, for Africans.”
The bikes to be built at Kumasi will cost the equivalent of about $65, less than the cost of an imported bicycle ranging in price from $95 to $110. Most of the imported steel bikes are made in China and India and are widely considered to be of poor quality and unreliable.
A co-founder of the Bamboo Bike Project was Craig Calfee, founder of Calfee Design of La Selva Beach, Calif., a pioneer in designing and building bamboo bikes in the United States.
“Back in 1984, when Craig was wandering around Africa,” says the company’s website, “he noticed three things: 1. There was a lot of bamboo, 2. People used bikes and didn’t have enough of them, and 3. they needed jobs. Perhaps people could build their own bamboo cargo bikes.”
And that’s exactly what’s happening now.
“We will reach 10 bikes per day by the end of February, and at least 20 bikes per day by the end of March,” Marty Odlin of the Bamboo Bike Studio said of the factory in Kumasi. “Increasing the production rate from that point will be contingent on orders. We’ll be capable of going far beyond that if needed.”

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4 Comments

Filed under Cool stuff, Journeys, Products, Travels, Urban cycling

4 responses to “Building bamboo bikes in Africa

  1. Ben

    Are the components and wheels donated or salvaged from junked bikes?

    • Ben,
      Judging from photos posted on websites, the components for the Kumasi plant appear to be new. One photo showed boxes of components yet to be unpacked. Another showed stacks of new wheels at work stations. I would guess that once the factory begins full production, the components will be bought cheaply from suppliers, probably overseas. I’d bet, though, that some of the bike-making facilities in Africa use recycled components.
      Dad

  2. Mark

    Any talk of exports? The original “One Laptop Per Child” effort has proven that westerners are more than happy to spend their own money on a great idea, and even an inflated price on these bikes would be far cheaper than what is currently available in a US-built bamboo bike.

  3. This is amazing, but here in Tanzania we have a lot of bamboo trees and we are doing nothing. any idea, any one who can invest on it pls?

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