Africa on the move: the Bamboo Bike Project


Bamboo has higher tensile strength than steel. Click on the logo for the project prospectus.

Africa imports an estimated 30 million bikes per year, yet there are no bike manufacturers on the continent. In today’s post, John Mutter of Columbia University describes a project to build bikes locally, using bamboo for the frames.

People in wealthy countries full of young, genuinely well motivated and committed people with honest and very good intentions can always do something to help those in poorer countries – something small, that is.  These small things no doubt can be very good things. You can build a sanitary facility in a village and the health of the villagers will improve. You can introduce better farming practices and yields will improve on the few hectares of a poor farmer’s field.

It is also not very difficult to establish a small business in Africa. There must be millions of roadside vendors selling everything from food to furniture to appliances. In many cases the goods are produced right there on the side of the road. They operate out of stalls as small as the average toilet stall in the US. These businesses support the income needs of perhaps one or two people at a very modest level.

When we first started the Bamboo Bike Project many people suggested that we should emulate that model. We should create new village-level or roadside businesses because “that’s what works in Africa”. People who encouraged that approach said that if we just got a few started then things would “go viral” and next thing you know they would be everywhere, like Starbucks maybe.

The problem is that just about nothing goes viral in Africa except biological viruses like HIV. The singular exception is cell phones. It’s hard to think of anything else that just took off. The roadside vendor selling fruit isn’t on the first step of a path that will lead to opening a Shop Rite supermarket, there isn’t a Pret a Manger chain in the future for the woman cooking food over a wood-fueled fire, the guy walking around with a display of 50 cheap sunglasses isn’t about to challenge Sunglass Hut any time soon.

For us the issue is that we want to make a serious difference to transportation needs and those needs are vast. Our guess is that there is something between 5 and 50 million bikes in sub-Saharan Africa (it is impossible to get a good number), almost every one made in China and every one of inappropriate design and very poor quality. A bike is something that is assumed to break and need constant repair. We want to make good quality bikes designed for the needs of the rural poor and don’t need repair as often.

Most important is that we want to make them at a scale comparable to the needs – millions. That can’t be done on the side of the road or in village settings. Bike building won’t go viral. It needs a factory and now there is one in Kumasi, Ghana.

The whole story is too long to tell here, but thanks to a partnership between the Millennium Cities Initiative at Columbia University, The Bamboo Bike Studio in Brooklyn, New York and a Ghanaian investor, a factory is taking shape that has the potential to produce perhaps 10,000 bikes a year all made locally. That’s not millions but it is a lot closer than what can be done on the side of a road and it has a chance of meeting some significant part of the transportation needs in West Africa.  

We haven’t found the Rosetta stone for scale-up. You can’t scale-up latrines this way. But we have kept a clear focus on the size of the problem from the very start and not been tempted into the much easier path of making a few bikes in a few places, taking pictures of ourselves in Africa, and achieving little more than making ourselves feel virtuous.

Useful links

African Economic Outlook

China in Africa: Debunking myths and debating truths

Linda Richter of South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria speaks out against AIDS orphan tourism in this post

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