From Reeds to Roads: Bamboo Bikes in Ghana
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
When Columbia University professor John Mutter went to Ghana in 2007, he noticed how necessary a reliable source of transportation was to people’s livelihoods and wellbeing.
“You can’t go to any of the poorer countries in Africa and not be struck by how many people get around by walking or bicycling,” said Mutter.
With roads in generally poor condition, it can take a long time to get from place to place, he said. Even the seemingly simple task of getting cash crops to market can be formidable.
“It’s pointless to grow vegetables for a market if you can’t get to the market” or keep track of market prices, he said. “Transportation can really be an inhibitor.”
So it made sense that many people got around by bike, but many of those bikes were meant for paved roads, and were very heavy and poorly made.
Bamboo was the natural solution, specifically a bike frame made of the sturdy shoots. Mutter was in Ghana as part of The Earth Institute at Columbia University’s Bamboo Bike Project.
“Bamboo is very strong, very light and available locally,” he said.
He and a team of scientists and engineers, including David Ho and Marty Odlin, worked on designing, building and testing the sustainable bikes.
A business plan determined that a price of about $55 to $65 per bike would be competitive and affordable, and cover the cost of materials. The project focused on the town of Kumasi, Ghana, as a possible location for a production facility.
A Ghanaian investor came on board, the factory was built, and local workers trained in what became known as Bamboo Bikes Ltd. This year, the factory will assemble some test bikes to make sure they hold up well in the rugged environment, and then eventually build the bikes for public consumption.