A student research team at Columbia University’s graduate School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) has partnered with the UN Millennium Cities Initiative, to assess the feasibility of growing a bamboo bike-building industry in Kisumu, Kenya!
We recently sat down with Kat Athanasiades, Michelle Eames, Riham Hussein, and Young Rhee, who began work on a feasibility study and business plan this past November. This study, which they are now close to completing, is a capstone project that fulfills a program requirement within the school’s international and economic development concentration. The team has recently returned from an exploratory visit to Kenya, and had some interesting things to share about the potential for a Kisumu arm of the Bamboo Bike Project.
Kisumu, they explained, is an area rich in both bamboo and imported Chinese bicycles. Not only are bikes a primary means of personal transportation for many local Kenyans, but Kisumu also lays claim to a massive boda boda taxi industry (boda bodas are essentially bicycle taxis). Kat, Michelle, Riham, and Young are exploring the possibility of phasing out the heavy metal bikes currently used by boda boda drivers with stronger, locally made bamboo ones. “When we met with the heads of the Boda Boda Association,” Kat explained, “they indicated that bamboo bikes would sell if they were perceived as being stronger and more attractive than what is there now.” And when local metal bikes register a weight of over 48 pounds (as Kat discovered when she weighed one by the side of the road), it’s easy to communicate the advantages of using a lightweight, well-made bamboo cargo bike. A bamboo bicycle would weigh about half as much, with a tensile strength greater than steel. “There is also great pride to be had in local construction,” Michelle continued, “especially in business ownership by ethnic Kenyans.”
The bamboo industry is negligible in Kenya at the moment, even though bamboo is an abundant, self-replenishing resource. Assuming that it would be possible to work with Kenyan officials to lift existing restrictions on bamboo harvesting, this SIPA group is evaluating the effectiveness of production models that range from small-scale farming with a central factory (mimicking the way in which sugar cane is currently grown and harvested) to a plantation farming model comprised of a factory with radial farming around it. As a development project, their feasibility study involves an analysis of long-term sustainability and possibilities for the bamboo industry in general, in addition to the specific ways in which bamboo might be used to make bicycles.
Kat, Michelle, Riham, and Young will present their final report and potential business plan in March 2009 in Kisumu and in April 2009 in New York. The Millennium Cities will publish this report in its working paper series, and we will post a link to the report on this blog when it becomes available. Following its publication, the Bamboo Bike Project and Millennium Cities Initiative can further dialogue with Kenyan business leaders, government officials, and residents of Kisumu about the possibilities of bamboo harvesting and bike production for local socioeconomic growth.