Bamboo bicycle business shoots up in a struggling African country

Based in Zambia, Zambikes employs and empowers Africans to manufacture bicycles locally, including some made from bamboo.

By , Global Envision

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    Zambikes manufactures, assembles, and distributes high-quality bicycles – including bikes whose frames are made from local bamboo plants – in the southern African country of Zambia. The bicycles are distributed to medical workers, pastors, or teachers allowing them to travel three times as fast as on foot.
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Zambikes has been helping Africans get around on locally made bikes since 2007.

Now they want to get the rest of the world rolling, too, but with a twist: These new cycles are almost 100 percent bamboo.

Zambia, where Zambikes is based, ranks a staggeringly low 150 out of 169 on the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Vaughn Spethmann and Dustin McBride witnessed the country’s dire economic straits and high unemployment rate first-hand during a 2004 university trip and founded Zambikes upon their return to the United States, according to The American.

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Believing business to be the best way to remedy the country’s woes, they wanted their new company to “employ and empower the uneducated and underprivileged,” Mr. Spethmann told Social Capital Markets Europe.

Spethmann says that as of May 2011, "Zambikes has distributed more than 8,000 bicycles, 900 bicycle ambulances and cargo carts, supplied much-needed spare parts, sold upwards of 200 bamboo bicycle frames worldwide, and have employed more than 100 Zambians."

Zambians who use the cargo cart can increase daily earning from $2 a day to $20, he said.

Zambikes wants to expand overseas, and it plans to do so sustainably. In addition to the metal bikes they produce in Africa, they now export bamboo bicycles to the United States.

Bamboo is exceedingly easy to grow and can shoot up two inches an hour under the right conditions, according to PlanetGreen.com. It’s flexible and light, and the bikes made from it can be put together using basic tools and machinery, according to the BBC.

Some might question the structural integrity of a bamboo bicycle, but the bikes’ proponents say they’re just as sturdy as the traditional metal frames. The Guardian’s GreenLiving Blog took one of Calfee’s bamboo models out for a spin in 2009 and found that it was comfortable, with great shock absorption. If you need to see it to believe it, check out this video of three large men piling onto a bamboo bike made in Ghana.

Zambikes isn’t the only company getting in on the action, though. Bamboosero and the Bamboo Bike Project are also trying to help Africans ride to economic prosperity. Now those in the market for a shiny new cycle can get a killer set of wheels and help support African entrepreneurs, too.

This article first appeared on Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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