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Archive for February, 2009

All work done to better the state of our world is admirable. But we at the Bamboo Bike Project maintain: to truly make an impact, good work has to be done on a large scale. We, and others, have proven that it is possible to build bamboo bikes that work well – and they are indeed as good if not better than bikes made with frames of other materials. Yet validation of our prototype does not explain how we get from one good bamboo bike to their large-scale production, and it is with large-scale production that we will see the success of this project.

It is very hard to estimate the number of bicycles there are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Certainly there are millions. There are 550 million people in that region; if even a tenth of them rode bikes, that’s 55 million bicycles. If one hundredth of the population rode bikes, that’s still 5.5 million bikes. Bikes are sold everywhere, their images are everywhere, and bike stores of all shapes and sizes are everywhere. What is an appropriate level of production? It is certainly a question we are hard at work to answer.

While we could encourage the growth of roadside or village level bicycle building, that approach could never meet a need at a level anywhere approaching 5-50 million bikes. That strategy would likely just increase the fortunes of a few roadside bicycle builders, and the transportation situation would remain unchanged. These local shops cannot produce goods at a rate that factories can, nor can they produce to similar scales. We must not fall into the trap of helping to start yet another small business that will do little but create a few interesting bikes, do nothing for poverty in rural areas and nothing for the economies of those countries that would benefit from bike manufacturing.

Thus, we have come to the conclusion that factory-style bamboo bike production is necessary. That doesn’t mean the equivalent of a vast Trek factory with thousands of employees, but it does mean a mode of production where both economies of scale can be created and a group of workers can be trained to perform skilled tasks in a coordinated and efficient way. In any factory, even small ones, bikes can be seen in all stages of production from the cutting of tubes, to initial assembly to finishing. Workers are trained to be skilled at tasks in different stages of production. Shipping is more efficient, as the supply chain can be managed from a central location. The need for these bikes is highly distributed, yet that does not imply that their production should be. There is absolutely an economy of scale in building bamboo bikes in a factory-like setting.

Currently, we are focusing on facilitating factory-scale production in the Millennium Cities of Kumasi, Ghana and Kisumu, Keyna. These are planned production sites that will both provide bikes to urban markets and do so at prices affordable enough to reach the rural poor. Kumasi and Kisumu are ideal locations for producing bikes and distributing them to areas where they are most needed. T-shirts and sunglasses for tourists can do well on the roadside, but bikes to help the poor need a factory.

lone bamboo bundle

lone bamboo bundle

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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.

A boda boda operator and his customer

A boda boda operator and his customer

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.”

Boda Boda businessmen

boda boda businessmen

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.

Kat and Michelle with a sign for the Millennium Villages

Kat and Michelle with a sign for the Millennium Villages

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