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.