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!

The Record

The Record of Columbia University has a nice story featuring the bamboo bike project and our own Marty Odlin.  The story gives a nice summary of the genesis of the project, what’s been accomplished, and where we hope to take it.  Check it out.


Marty Odlin shows off prototypes of bamboo bikes.

Marty Odlin shows off prototypes of bamboo bikes.

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

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

Off to Ghana

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

Our New York engineers have integrated new testing machinery into the bamboo bike-building process, enabling them to better approximate professional grade material testing.  In an effort to build the ultimate hoop-stress test setup, Marty purchased a hydraulic splitter and a pneumatic fatigue tester, which hooks into the fork of the bike frame and flexes it until the frame breaks.

Biking to Work

Marty and crew are able to use this machine to compare relative strengths of bicycle frames built of different bamboo varieties, as well as bamboo that has been treated with different treatments and using different treatment methods.  How, for instance, does bamboo treated with one brand of epoxy resin hold up to another? What style of wrapping creates the strongest joints, and to what degree do the results differ?  Eventually, we might even be able to use this technology to test new treatment methods altogether: how, for example, would a piece of flame-treated bamboo hold up against a piece coated with beeswax or smoked in a bamboo smoker?  The splitter and the fatigue tester, when coupled with a newly acquired air compressor that tests the strength of the bicycle joints, will enable us to make use of detailed, scientific, more empirically accurate data as we construct the strongest possible bamboo bikes.

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.