Bamboo Bikes: A Cheap and Lightweight Alternative to Metal Bicycles
Bamboo Bikes: A Cheap and Lightweight Alternative to Metal Bicycles

In Zambia, bamboo bicycles are increasing employment and easing transportation costs.

It's all part of a project founded by two Californians who wanted to create cheap and affordable bikes for the developing world.

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Vanghu Spethmann and Dustin McBride, who first came to Zambia on a university field trip two years ago, decided to build bicycles tough enough to handle the Zambian terrain. Their idea:  to make a frame from pieces of bamboo held together with a coarse fiber called sisal. Fixed to the frames are wheels, pedals and handlebars.

The plan is to manufacture the bike frames in developing countries and send them to Europe and the United States where they will be finished and sold.

With the help of designer Craig Calfree, a team of 25 young Zambian men are being trained to build the bikes.

Project manager Chiteu Muyoya said the advantage of a bamboo bicycle is that it can absorb vibrations and shocks like bumps in the road, making it comfortable to ride over long distances. "The cost of production in Zambia is very high," he said. "So we [subsidize] some of the costs by providing bicycle parts like the frames. We contacted Craig Calfee to train our staffs on how to assemble a bamboo bicycle."

Friday Mazimba, 27, who has been trained to make and assemble the bike, hopes to set up his own manufacturing plant.

The hand-made bamboo frames take less than a week to construct. The bamboo used to the bicycles is locally grown and reaches maturity after just three to four years.  Once harvested, the fibrous material is heated for 24 hours before being measured and cut to bicycle size. "These bamboo bikes are as strong as the steel ones," said Mazimba.

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They also come in various sizes. One, called the bike trailer, carries cargo.

Then there's one that carries people to hospital.

"The Zambulance is a bicycle ambulance designed to meet a specific medical need...," Muyoya said. " transport patients from home to the clinics in a comfortable, affordable ambulance trailer. No more patients being ferried to the health center on carts or wheelbarrows. With the Zambulance, patients are able to reach clinics fast."

Muyoya said the Zambulance can carry up to 250 kilograms.

The Zambike will be sold in Zambia for between $[US]200-$400 and about double that when exported to North America and Europe.

The company is also selling the bicycles to non-governmental organizations that need bikes for their employees such as medical workers, educators and entrepreneurs.

One challenge for the bamboo bicycle makers is competition from cheap metal bicycles that are being imported from China and other parts of Asia.

Some of the NGOs may buy the Zambikes but sell them at a lower price to local Zambians.

A similar project is underway in Ghana. 

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