[This is part six of a diary that John Mutter, co-founder of the Bamboo Bike Project, kept on a trip to Ghana in January 2011]

I traveled back to Accra on Sunday via the VIP bus.  The bus station is located in market area and is fairly simple to catch.  Just turn up and sit in a waiting area that is set up with four sets of seats – three across and about ten deep that represents a bus-full of people.  Those in the seats nearest the doors that lead out to the bus are the next to leave and they are sold tickets.  The rest of us sit in the farther rows of seats and pick up our stuff and move progressively closer to the desired seats when those who have been sold tickets are told they can get on the bus.  So there is no schedule and the bus goes when it is full.  It seems to work.  People all around are selling water and snacks for the ride.

The bus seems to deal with the roads better than the car on the way up, and we make better time as well even with a stop at a rest stop on the way where I paid to go to the rest room and I bought a pie to eat.  Asking what sort of meat was in it, I was told something I could not understand ort recognize but I ate it anyway.  I didn’t get sick.

Finding the Afia Beach hotel was a challenge as it is down an unmarked dirt road in poor condition and the sign for the hotel at the head of the road had been removed because it had been mistakenly placed over a sewer or utility lines and was taken down to do work on the utilities.  Fortunately I had downloaded a Google map of the area and could figure out how to get there.   But the hotel was the real reward – bungalow style rooms that opened on to the beach.  A little rough in places but not bad at all.  I would recommend it.

A view something like the one from my room at the Afia beach Hotel

The dining area was outdoors and the menu was reasonably interesting and the setting was outdoors amid palm trees with a distant view of the beach that I saw in the morning at breakfast.

Simple getting to the airport and the flight was straightforward as well.  Back to frigid New York in the evening of Monday with no serious issues.  Next day is the start of the semester.


I rather regret not being able to stay for the week of training on the new set-up in the factory.  The team of Ghanaians have been picking up skills at a very rapid rate and it would have been a real pleasure to see them lean to build bikes of the jigs made for that purpose and us the tools that they have.  However, since I could not be involved directly in the training myself it seemed like not the best use of time to stand aside and watch and take photos and of course the semester began the same week so I had little choice but to come back to New York.  Still, it would have been good to stay a while longer.

[This is part five of a diary that John Mutter, co-founder of the Bamboo Bike Project, kept on a trip to Ghana in January 2011]

It’s Saturday, and we are picked up at 7 am from the hotels and went to an intermediate site where the semi holding our container from Brooklyn was parked at a gas station, and where the BBL blue truck was also parked.  We all worked to off load the container into the blue truck and pickup.  Didn’t take long at all.  Most of the crew came out and we moved things along quickly.  We drove to the factory and unloaded there.  Everything was done by 9 am, much sooner that I guessed would be possible.

Truck owned by BBL moving the jigs and tools to the factory

We spent the rest of the morning getting things out of boxes and setting up for the start of training using the jigs and the tools and machinery on Monday.  The band saw was assembled as well.

Everything seems to have arrived intact and nothing forgotten.  There are few things that will need to be obtained from local providers but everything is set to go for training in frame building using the workstations with that will be the center of the production when things get rolling.

Ten workstations set up with jigs ready to start the first production of bikes at scale in Ghana

By the end of the morning the space looks nearly ready for serious production.  The equipment that came from US is extensive, including a large band saw, grinder, full Park Tool kit (I’m jealous), drill press and system for making injection molds.  Very impressive.

[This is part four of a diary that John Mutter, co-founder of the Bamboo Bike Project, kept on a trip to Ghana in January 2011]

The day began with news that the container did not clear customs yesterday, but was expected to clear today and arrive at the end of the day. Today is Friday, so if the container comes at the end of the day, the crew will most likely have gone home and will not be available to help unload.  We can do this ourselves and maybe a few will stay.  Then there is a question of what happens Saturday.  Maybe it will be possible to have people work that day but not Sunday for sure.  Given the short amount of time that Marty, Justin and Ben have to do the training we need to get things started on Saturday if at all possible.

So Friday at the factory began with further training in bamboo selection and in wheel building in parallel groups.  The wheel builders are getting quite skilled and soon will not need oversight.

About mid morning Marty gave a lecture to the crew on factory set-up and management.  He also stepped them through the process of construction that will happen when all the tools and jigs arrive.

Today the exhaust system was installed for the back-up generator.  The parts including a section of pipe maybe 12 feet long came by motorcycle.  The gas tank seems to be getting repaired as well.

The day was pretty slow in most ways.  The best achievements were that the crew got very good at wheel building and at the end of the day one of the guys claimed he could build one in 15 minutes and others challenged him in a competition.  He didn’t win but got in just over 15 minutes that is a marvelous achievement for novices.

Building wheels at lightning speed

Kwame also spent part of the day researching places to have bottom bracket shells, head tubes, etc. made locally, and has found some places where it looks like it is possible.  He came back with samples.

The container from Brooklyn has cleared customs, and was first expected to arrive at 7 pm.  Then, this was rescheduled to 4 am tomorrow.

[This is part three of a diary that John Mutter, co-founder of the Bamboo Bike Project, kept on a trip to Ghana in January 2011]

Breakfast on the morning of January 13th at the Lamerta consisted of instant coffee, some sort of egg preparation that might almost be an omelet, and sausages accompanied by loud radio station that seemed mostly to be politically oriented and simultaneous TV.  The Cecera Guest house where the others are staying is across the street a couple of buildings away and I went there and met them just as they were finishing breakfast.

A pick-up truck came for the team and the three guys went and I stayed because Kwame, who is financing the factory in Kumasi, was coming later and Nicole and I went with him about a half hour later.

The factory is in a semi-residential, semi-industrial area with a few guesthouses and small businesses all on deeply rutted and quite poor dirt roads.  No doubt these roads will be improved at some point but it looks like the area has had a period of rapid development that stalled.  Very large houses that must belong to fairly wealthy people sit along side very modest places.

Delivery by any large vehicle would be an issue and apparently was a problem when our container with bike parts came yesterday but everything was unloaded onto trucks owned by Bamboo Bikes Limited (Kwame’s company).  Now there are 750 sets of rims, associated spokes, cranks, forks etc. available to build bikes. The factory space is in a compound secured by walls and a serous gate.

The main facility with the large doors open for access. The management offices are in the right photo. Babaa, who has been hired to improve the grounds is in the scene. In the background is the secondary building where bikes will be stored.

The main facility with the large doors open for access. The management offices are in the right photo.  Babaa, who has been hired to improve the grounds is in the scene.  In the background is the secondary building where bikes will be stored.

There is one large high ceiling building that is the main space where bikes will be produced.  Management offices are exterior to the main building.  Apparently the factory, which has houses on either side, was a water sachet factory before.  It looks like the storage available would allow about 1000 bike parts and components to be kept in storage.

Parts in storage in the rooms inside the main facility

There is a lot of bamboo available stored outside where it is drying but it is harder to judge what storage capacity there is in terms of bike equivalents since not all of it can be used.  This is actually not the bamboo that was sent to the US for testing before and we will need to get a sample back and test it.

Outside, the yard is being improved and will have a paved area and some new grassed areas.  Right now there is a paved area where cars can come and where a reasonably large truck could make deliveries but not a semi-trailer.  Water is from wells in the yard of the factory.  There is power from the grid but there is a back-up generator as well.  Although the factory is just starting, there is clearly space enough here to support serious production.

The forks that were sent in the container from China have steerer tube lengths shorter than ordered, and that means they do not suite the molds that were made for the lugs for these bikes.  Though the metal head tubes can be easily cut down to be suitable, the aluminum molds that were made for this purpose are no longer suitable.  So Marty has been busy trying to make a new mold from wood.  He has spent a large amount of time on this – even going to the Kumasi Technical Institute (KTI) for help.  This way of making a mold requires carving the mold shape from hard wood and goes very slowly.

Marty Odlin shaping the mold with Nicole Hahn ever present recording everything. Bamboo storage in the background

The factory has been set up to work on ten bikes at a time. The hope is to have 20 bikes being constructed in parallel and that seems quite reasonable.  Certainly there is space for that.  There are seven guys who all have qualifications from KTI who have been hired and they form the core of the production team.  Today they were involved in three main activities.  In the morning they were selecting and cutting bamboo from the storage area.  There is a very good electric saw for this that makes the job quite quick and the cuts are clean and straight.  The small shoots that come out of many of the stalks at the nodes need to be trimmed and this is done with a handsaw.

At the same time they were smoothing the joints on two bikes that were built from starter kits the previous day.  This involves sanding and filing both for the purposes of making a smooth appearance but also because irregularities have the effect of concentrating stress that might generate weak points that could eventually lead to failure.

Ben showing members of the Ghanaian team the art of smoothing the joints with a detail on the right

We walked to lunch at a local roadside vendor where everyone had local food items prepared there.

The afternoon was involved in training the crew in wheel building.  The wheels were sent as hubs, rims and spokes separately and need to bebuilt up by the team.  Once people gain the skills this can be done in 15 minutes or so.  Ben first demonstrated the process and then each of the builders built one for themselves under Ben’s guidance.  This is a non-trivial task and takes some practice but as I watched it was obvious these guys were getting the idea pretty quickly and that’s very encouraging.

At the end of the day everyone had built a wheel and that counts as quite an achievement.  There are many, many people working in bike shops in the US who can’t build a wheel.  None of these guys had come close to doing anything like this before and it is a real delight to see them doing so well at it.  Many of them travel a long way to get to the factory, taking as much as an hour and a half.   They are keen and enthusiastic and have the skills to build bikes, no doubt about that.

Ben training one of the crew in wheel-making, and at the end of the day everyone has built a wheel

The only news that is not so great is that the container from Brooklyn with tools and jigs and the other things needed to build bikes has not arrived.  The consistent word is that it will arrive tomorrow morning.  If it does not we will start running out of things to do for training fairly soon.

[This is part two of a diary that John Mutter, co-founder of the Bamboo Bike Project, kept on a trip to Ghana in January 2011]

Arrived in Accra on January 12th and had a simple passage through customs and immigration.  Couldn’t see the driver that had been arranged and had to go search with the help of an airport assistant with an official badge around her neck and a uniform.  Signs around telling you not to accept help from any non-uniformed person.  I had arranged a car to get me to Kumasi thinking it would be simpler than finding the bus and cheaper than a commuter plane (which it turned out not to be).  The car was a diesel four-wheel drive, fairly new.

The drive was promised to take 4 hours but actually took almost 6 hours.  The highway to Kumasi is very bad in some places and slow even in places where they are good because of heavy local traffic.  The scene is like I remembered from 2007 but in the places where the road was under construction the dust raised by vehicles was so heavy that it covered nearby vegetation making it appear more brown than green.  Road is paved for a while, then paved but deeply pot holed then unpaved.  Every bad section requires that we slow to a few miles per hour and swerve well across the road.  Broken down trucks covered in red dust every few miles in the bad sections.

Tiny businesses of all types by the road side some occupying space smaller than a toilet stall in the US.  These are the sorts of businesses that can at best serve as meager income for perhaps one person and the sort of thing that cannot produce bikes at the scale we need.

Paid for the ride at the upscale Golden Tulip Hotel where the car company has its office and discovered I needed to pay the gas both ways so the ride was no deal – no better than taking a local flight, maybe more.

The Royal Lamerta is reasonable and I was able to get a meal and get in touch with Nicole by text and arrange to meet in the morning. Room has A/C, hotel has a pool – not that I will use it.

[This is part one of a diary that John Mutter, co-founder of the Bamboo Bike Project, kept on a trip to Ghana in January 2011]

I left for Ghana on Tuesday January 11th on Delta flight 226 via Altanta amid concerns about travel because of snow along much of the US East Coast south of New York.  Ice and snow had closed the Atlanta airport the day before.  Although Delta flies direct to Accra, two flights a week go through Atlanta and the others are direct from JFK.  We considered delaying by a day but snow was expected in New York Wednesday and already Lamont-Doherty was having a delayed opening and the South Orangetown schools where my daughter goes to school were closed.  But by the time I traveled in the afternoon flights in to Atlanta were on time and there were no delays leaving other than the usual – the plane could not be pulled back from the gate and we had to go back and get a Supertug to get us moving.

The gate for the flight to Ghana was close to the arrival gate from JFK and that flight was delayed an hour as the plane was cleaned and “swept by security”, whatever that might imply.  Certainly didn’t improve confidence.

Flight was not full at all; maybe a lot of people had cancelled due to the bad weather.  I got an emergency row seat, which was good for legroom but about as uncomfortable as could be imagined — very hard base, no padding to speak of.  But I did sleep some on the flight.

Marty, Justin and Ben from Bamboo Bike Studio, as well as the documentary filmmaker Nicole Hahn left a few days prior, Nicole delayed until Sunday while the others left Friday.  We have heard from Nicole but not from Marty.  She and the others are staying at the Cicero Guest House and I am booked nearby at a hotel – the Royal Lamerta.

Nearing Production

Imagine creating an affordable product and a sustainable industry tailored to both meet urgent demand and use native materials. This is what the Bamboo Bike Project (BBP) is doing in Kumasi, Ghana. We’ve honed our bamboo bike design to be suitable for road conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, and created a system by which these bikes can be produced in local conditions in Africa with local directions and local labor. Now we’re moving onto the next step, a production run in Africa’s first-ever Bamboo Bike Project facility!

Since being founded in 2007 with seed funding from the Earth Institute, the BBP has worked to make feasible the production of bamboo bikes in Africa.  Now we are working with the Earth Institute’s Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) in an effort to scale up from a feasibility project to routine production. This partnership has paid off: With the help of MCI, bamboo bikes have gained attention from investors and prospective buyers. Our presence in Kumasi, Ghana came about when a local investor native to this Millennium City approached us and shared his interest in establishing a bamboo bike production facility. The investor has already leased a production facility and has reached agreements to harvest local bamboo.  The MCI and BBP have also engaged in discussions with interested investors in Kenya, as well as a number of prospective buyers, including NGOs based in Africa and the United States.

In light of this exciting news, MCI announced the release of a new MCI webpage and slideshow about the BBP. The website and slideshow reiterate why bikes are so essential in sub-Saharan Africa—they help transport people to jobs, bring students to schools, carry goods to market, transport agricultural necessities to farms, and deliver medical supplies to hospitals. The MCI materials also highlight the advantages of using bamboo to build bikes, as well as the project’s progress to date.

Thus far, our work has shown that bamboo bikes offer a number of advantages over the imported metal bikes currently used in sub-Saharan Africa. Manufacturing bamboo bike frames requires less electricity and expensive infrastructure, and the final product is lighter, stronger and is better suited for travel on the unpaved roads often found in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. They can also be easily modified for different manufacturer or user needs, such as carrying loads or passengers. Most importantly, the bikes are very affordable. KPMG, an Earth Institute partner, analyzed the feasibility of bamboo bicycle production in Ghana and found that our bikes can be produced for less than $50. This means that they can be sold for significantly less than the current market price of bikes imported from China and India.

In order to maximize the impact of these bikes, the BBP needs additional support from potential investors and donors. Large-scale production will ultimately help deliver a sustainable and affordable form of transportation to rural African populations, while also creating employment opportunities. Accordingly, BBP and MCI have developed a 2-page “prospectus” for prospective donors and investors that outlines the project’s statement of need as well as the potential benefits available to investors.

For more information about this exciting progress, please contact the Bamboo Bike Project at john@bamboobike.org, or the Millennium Cities Initiative at mci@ei.columbia.edu, or visit the websites for the Bamboo Bike Project and MCI.