New Internationalist

Bamboo bikes

Issue 417

Bamboo is so tough and so plentiful it’s used for construction scaffolding all aver Asia. So why not use it to build bikes? It seemed like a good idea to design maestro Craig Calfee and to the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City. The two have teamed up to build better bikes for poor Africans in rural areas and stimulate the local bicycle industry in a number of African countries. The NI talked to Bamboo Bike Project co-ordinator and Columbia scientist David Ho.

Bamboo Bike Project / The Earth Institute
Sturdy enough for two: bamboo bikes may be just the ticket in Africa. Bamboo Bike Project / The Earth Institute

Where did the idea for the Bamboo Bike Project come from?
The Earth Institute at Columbia University has a track record of doing this kind of thing. The idea was also fairly simple. Once I saw Craig Calfee’s bamboo bike design I thought it would be great if we could incorporate it into the Millennium Villages we have in various parts of Africa. Transport is always a real problem in these communities so this is a great way of using a natural resource to improve transport.

What are the Millennium Villages?
The idea is to fight poverty at the local level through community-led development so that rural Africa can achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015 – reducing extreme poverty and hunger by half and improving education, health, gender equality and environmental sustainability. We work with villages to create action plans that are tailored to the villages’ specific needs and we try to incorporate new advances in science and technology into the projects.

How easily can bamboo bikes be made in Ghana or other African countries, and how responsive are Africans to the idea?
The bamboo bike is easier to build than any other bike. We built a bike in a shack in Ghana with no electricity. So you don’t need much infrastructure at all. What we really want are good quality bikes for Africans, and this is just the first step. There’s very little local manufacture, and imported bikes from China tend to be too expensive. Poorer people have little chance of owning cars or motorcycles, so this is a step to improving their transport options. People loved the bike. They thought it was a great idea.

What benefits do they bring?
A lot of poor Africans are faced with transport problems. Cars are expensive and bikes have to be imported from China because there’s no local manufacture. This lack of transport really limits job opportunities, local trade and service delivery. So bikes help economically and they’re also useful to get healthcare workers into rural areas.

And what challenges have you faced?
We were told that the biggest challenge would be acceptance. People would want more Western modes of transport; they wouldn’t take it seriously. But we found just the opposite. People thought it was a really useful and inexpensive idea.

So what’s the future for the bamboo bike?
Ultimately we’re looking for more than just one or two bike shops in Africa making bamboo bikes. We’d like to get a proper workshop going where people can come and share tools and make these bikes on a larger scale. So that’s what we’d like to see, but we need an investor who’s interested in sponsoring the project to help get it off the ground. We’d also like to send people out there to train local people to make the bikes.

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This article was originally published in issue 417

New Internationalist Magazine issue 417
Issue 417

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