Archive for the ‘Investments’ Category

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.


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Almost from the beginning, we at the Bamboo Bike Project realized that in order to work on a scale that matters (i.e., large), we need to works closely with organizations that have the appropriate knowledge and experience.

One of these organizations that we’ve been working with is the Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI), who helps under-resourced sub-Saharan African cities achieve the Millennium Development Goals and eradicate extreme poverty.

Check out the MCI webpage which features the Bamboo Bike Project.

MCI Logo

The Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) is a project of the Earth Institute, Columbia University

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To achieve our ambitious goal of making bamboo bikes in Africa at a scale that matches the need we know exists, we have to do something that has never been done before in Africa (or anywhere else) – we have to make large production runs of bamboo bikes. To date no one, not even the most prominent bike builders in the US, have produced more than a handful of these bikes.

Taken during Marty's recent trip to Kumasi and Bonsaaso

Taken during Marty's recent trip to Kumasi and Bonsaaso

One of the outcomes of the trip Marty Odlin made to Ghana this year was a commitment from an investor to make a test production run of 800 bikes. This may seem like a modest number compared to the true need, yet it is the sort of test run that will allow us to determine where the issues lie in eventually reaching a much larger production.

In the US, we need to come up with technologies that will permit this.  We must develop ways to quickly make the cuts and borings that allow metal parts like the rear dropouts and seat tube to be married to the bamboo sections. If processes like these are done fully by hand, the amount of time needed to construct each bike is large – and so we have to come up with ways to make bike construction go a lot faster. This also holds true for the way the bamboo is treated; our flame treater looks like the most promising way to maximize efficiency in the treating process, as it reduces the treating time from around 2 hours to less than 20 minutes for one frame.

In Ghana, we are first looking into spaces to get set up; we then need to put our supply chain in place. For now we are looking at using metal parts from China, because at present this is the fastest and most economical option. We would like to start making some of the simpler parts in Africa soon – such as handlebars, seat tubes, etc. – and eventually make everything there on the ground. But for this run of 800 we still need to source from China.

Most important, we need to raise the funds for this next critical step. So far we have been operating on our initial seed funding – and that is not going to work from now on. Many people have made very generous donations both directly and through the purchase of T-shirts and jerseys. That has kept us going and is deeply appreciated.  However, the estimated cost of the 800-bike test run is around $120,000 including development costs, purchase of parts and the management of the work. We don’t have sources for this amount identified at present and are in search of donors and investors to help us achieve this next critical milestone in the Bamboo Bike Project.

The project has reached a very critical and exciting stage. If we can pass the 800 test, we should be able to get into serious production by next year – and then, our ultimate goal of helping to alleviate rural poverty in Africa through improved transportation will be that much closer.

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Marty Odlin, engineer extraordinaire for the Bamboo Bike Project and assistant director of the Columbia University Center for Sustainable Engineering, will be heading off to Ghana in the coming week!  Marty will join a team in Ghana comprised of potential investors, scientists, and engineers, as he oversees field tests that will be run on our prototype bicycles!

After receiving the bamboo bikes that we sent some weeks ago, our contacts in Ghana ran some preliminary market tests to gauge interest in the product.  The encouraging feedback they received has led them to begin the next stage of product development: product testing in the field, under the conditions and stresses that a bamboo bike would face when put to daily use by local residents.

Because the bamboo bike models being used by this Ghanaian team are prototypes, Marty decided it would be a good idea to be present at these field tests; better understanding the way these prototypes fare will enable him to refine the designs of future models.  The Bamboo Bike Project also hopes that Marty will be able to answer all possible questions that might arise concerning engineering and structural mechanics, as well as assess any problems should they arise.

Marty will be in close contact with us throughout his trip to Ghana so stay tuned for updates on his travels and his findings!

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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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The Makings of a Bicycle

Raw Bamboo - The Makings of a Bicycle

The Bamboo Bike Project has sent two prototype bicycles to Kumasi, Ghana! After many hours of building and testing our sample bikes, we completed two models that were shipped to the potential investor with whom we are working on the ground in Ghana. He will take these two bicycles around Kumasi to further test the viability and market strength of bamboo bikes in the area. We are excited and waiting to hear about these bikes’ reception in Africa, and will share with you the feedback we receive!

Finished Bikes by Alma Mater

Finished Bikes by Alma Mater

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On November 27, 2008, bamboo bicycles earned a mention in The Economist print edition.

In an article called “On your bike: A scheme to encourage cheap transport on two wheels,” the magazine introduced bamboo bicycles as a potential “key to mobilising rural Africans and unclogging the cities.” It mentioned the high tensile strength of bamboo, the low purchasing cost of a bamboo bicycle, and the KPMG–authored market study for creating a bamboo bike factory in Kumasi, Ghana.

We need to clarify and expand upon a few things mentioned in the article, and have posted a comment on the Economist’s site under “gorfrog.” The United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT) estimates that bicycle use in Africa is very high. For instance, there are 14,000 bicycles currently being used in Kumasi, Ghana alone – and that number is rapidly growing. The main problem with bicycles in Africa is that the bicycles that many have access to are utterly inappropriate for the terrain, and for the uses to which they are put. The “glutinous dirt roads” and potholes mentioned by the author as a way to explain bicycles’ lack of popularity is precisely why many in rural and urban areas across Africa and across the developing world see a need for all-terrain, light and durable cargo carriers like the bamboo bike, capable of replacing “unsuitable” Chinese bikes in an economy where many can’t afford cars.  Such inappropriate bikes would indeed be discarded as soon as people have the chance to get a motor cycle or a car of any sort.

The Bamboo Bike Project has a unique mission that differs from the goals of individual entrepreneurs like American bike-maker Craig Calfee, mentioned in this article. His aim is to teach a few local entrepreneurs to build bamboo bicycles, and improve the livelihood of these entrepreneurs. However, this model will only produce tens of bikes a year, and will not be enough to satisfy the needs of larger populations in Africa. Just like in the US, boutique bike builders each produce ca. 100 bikes a year, whereas the large companies like Trek, Giant, Specialized, etc produce hundreds of thousands. It is these larger companies that are satisfying the needs of the majority of the people.

Our goal in the Bamboo Bike Project is to work with entrepreneurs and investors abroad who see economic, social, and technological potential in implementing large-scale bamboo bike production and sale in local markets. Ours is a project arising from the ground up, on the ground in areas like Kumasi, Ghana. Growth of the Bamboo Bike Project signifies the emergence of an industry more than the popularity of an imported invention.

Our sights are set much higher than a level of production limited to small workshops that produce only a few bikes a year. Success of the Bamboo Bike Project will mean the establishment and growth of a vast network of bamboo bicycle factories, which will each produce upwards of 20,000 bamboo bicycles annually for local distribution. The high levels of production and sale required by this model will more substantially improve the state of rural transportation, and will have a greater capacity to impact wider economic markets (potentially lowering the cost of other forms of effective transportation for rural residents even further). Larger factories will produce job opportunities that yield economic growth, and will be able to ensure quality control of our finished product.

We are excited by The Economist’s recognition of the bamboo bicycle and its potential, and are even more committed to our plans to transform that potential into a widely-experienced reality.

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