On a continent with little access to reliable transportation but ample in bamboo, one entrepreneur has found a way to turn the material into a life-changing resource.
The Bamboo Bike Project (BBP) is an initiative that “aims to examine the feasibility of implementing cargo bikes made of bamboo as a sustainable form of transportation in Africa.” The idea began when a dog named Luna was given two stalks of bamboo to chew, and though she could easily destroy any other stick, these stalks proved impenetrable to her strong jaws. Her owner noticed this and her owner just happened to be Craig Calfee, one of the country’s most elite in bike-building. He built his first bamboo bike prototype and used it to run errands. Then he built a few more for friends. He thought of his recent trip to Africa and the idea hit him, that maybe if people in Africa could learn to build them, they would have both a livelihood and a means of transportation.
A large number of Africans rely on bicycles for transportation but they are often the imported bikes designed for smooth road surfaces. Bamboo is the ideal material to substitute for bike-building in Africa. It is both flexible and strong… similar to an aluminum frame used for many mass-produced bikes. And because bamboo has a vibration-damping characteristic similar to carbon fibre, it makes riding on the bumpy, uneven African roads a bit smoother. In a country that lacks electricity, these bike frames can be built by hand using bamboo, resin and sisal (a fiber used for making rope, sacking and insulation).
Calfee took a chance and put a blurb on his website outlining these positive aspects. In a twist of fate, David Ho, a cyclist who happens to work for the Earth Institute of Columbia University, clicked on that link. The Earth Institute was formed with the goal of achieving sustainable development with an emphasis on protecting the Earth’s resources as well as the spread of social and economic opportunities for all people. The Bamboo Bike Project fit in perfectly with those goals and soon a partnership was formed.
Two cities were targeted for distribution of the bamboo bikes – Kumasi, Ghana and Kisumu, Kenya. After a trip to visit these cities (including a stop at the Kenya Forest Research Institute where a bamboo production initiative was already underway), the BBP determined that the resources are plentiful and the need is great. With sturdy bikes villagers can get their goods to markets… opening up regional trade; doctors can reach more patients; rural students can get to school easier. The project will also focus on the special needs of women who are often the backbones of the community as they tend to crops, perform chores and organize their family’s life and finances.
The goal for mass production and distribution is 20,000 bikes annually. Tweaks and advancements to the production system will need to be made but the BBP remains confident that bringing this project to a bamboo-rich continent will have a major impact on the lives of millions living in poverty. In the meantime, they are working hard and enjoying the testing process.
Witness BBP’s first ever Columbia Criterion.
Another great bamboo bike story can be found in our Celebrities Love Bamboo post, where Colin Firth and friends market their bamboo bikes.
Bamboo is such an amazing resource that can help countries all across the world, which is why we have dedicated an entire category to Bamboo’s Worldwide Impact.