Getting in Gear

Bamboo is cropping up everywhere. In recent years, the material has been fashioned into everything from furniture and fabric to cutting boards and coffee filters—and, perhaps most notably, bicycles. This summer, the Bamboo Bike Project drew considerable attention for its Red Hook, Brooklyn, studio, which invites customers to handcraft their own rides. The fee for the two-day experience is $1,250. But part of that money goes toward funding the project’s larger humanitarian mission—setting up a bike factory in Kumasi, Ghana, in partnership with Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Bamboo bikes are nothing new. The first debuted in 1894 in London and gained popularity for the same reason the form is being rediscovered today: stronger than steel, bamboo is also lightweight and flexible, allowing it to dampen the shock of bumpy roads. “The only ride quality that I can compare bamboo to would be a carbon bike,” says Justin Aguinaldo, a Bamboo Bike Project volunteer and New York bike messenger. And because it grows like a weed in virtually any climate, the material is highly sustainable and cheap, making it a crop ideally suited to rural communities with scarce resources. The question for social initiatives like the Bamboo Bike Project is how to create a profitable business model in the developing world.

While the group secures investors, it is working on standardizing its production methods as well as a technique for fortifying the frames against splitting, a dangerous tendency that doomed the first generation of bamboo bicycles. According to a feasibility study conducted by the consulting firm KPMG, the business would tap into a viable market of Ghanaian consumers who lack affordable modes of transportation. The bike frames would be assembled from the bamboo forests that already thrive in Ghana, while the other components, at least for the time being, would be sourced from China. “This is actually a moneymaking opportunity,” says Marty Odlin, an assistant director of the project. “The average bike in Ghana is over $100, and that’s for a terrible Chinese steel bike. If you cut the cost of production in half, the market isn’t just going to double; it’s going to explode.” To turn a profit, however, the group estimates that the factory would need to produce 20,000 bikes a year at a cost of $47 per bike.

Craig Calfee, a designer and manufacturer of custom bikes in La Selva Beach, California, is skeptical that it can be done. Once affiliated with Bamboo Bike Project—he went on the group’s first trip to Ghana in 2007 and helped design its cargo-bike prototype—he defected to launch his own venture in Ghana called Bamboosero. “While it would be a great thing to build a useful bamboo bike that sells for $50,” he writes in an e-mail, “I have doubts that it can be accomplished in an economically sustainable manner.” (It should be noted that $50 is no trifle in a country where the average yearly income is $1,500.)

Instead of convincing outside investors to build one large factory to produce bikes for locals, Calfee has set up his own licensing agreement with Ghanaian entrepreneurs: he provides the seed money and training, and they sell their bamboo frames to him for distribution in the United States and Europe under the brand Bamboosero. It’s an arrangement that he thinks stands a better chance of building a stable customer base. “If we can demonstrate that Africa is not such a risky place to do business, perhaps more investors will consider extending credit or taking a chance on African business ventures,” Calfee writes. “After all, that is what they really need!”

While both camps continue to hash out their ideas Stateside, it will be Ghanaians, as producers and customers, who ultimately determine which framework has wheels.

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