In rural areas of Ghana, the Student and Youth Travel Organization (SYTO) works to arrange volunteering trips, internships, homestays and cultural exchanges for foreign visitors. To reach and get around the most remote and underserved villages of rural Ghana, these visitors need transportation on which they can rely; however, they often find that there is nothing suitable in their village destinations.
Meanwhile, in Kumasi, Ghana, one operation, called Bamboo Bikes Limited, has blossomed from its small-scale experimental beginnings into a large-scale producer of just what SYTO volunteers need: bikes made out of bamboo. SYTO is therefore a proud supporter of Bamboo Bikes Limited and uses this local producer to supply what it needs for volunteers headed places that are all but inaccessible by public transport.
Bamboo Bikes Limited came about as part of the Millennium Cities Initiative of Columbia University. First, the Bamboo Bike Project at the Earth Institute of Columbia University assembled a team of engineers to design a prototype and then provided technical training to local people in Ghana. The idea was to create a light, strong, affordable bicycle constructed entirely of local material and able to be assembled using local labour.
Now, two years later, Bamboo Bikes Limited is operational and growing. During a two-week training program earlier this year, it began the production of 750 bikes for a test run. Its ultimate goal is to put 20,000 bikes per year on the road, which would go a long way toward meeting the transportation needs of Ghana’s rural communities.
Benefits of Bamboo
Bamboo bikes are beneficial in a number of ways. First, the primary material used is biodegradable, which is easier on the environment than other materials used in building bikes. Second, the bikes are manufactured locally by trained community craftsmen, thereby creating employment for the local people. The bikes are most useful in rural areas, where vehicular transport is not common and roads are poor, especially during the raining seasons.
Local people find many uses for bamboo bicycles. Students travel to school with them; merchants carry goods to the market; farmers transport agricultural produce to and from their land; and health workers deliver much-needed medical supplies to and from clinics.
At SYTO, foreign volunteers are trying these bamboo-framed bicycles out for themselves, excited by how unique and comfortable they are.
As Doug Switzer, a volunteer from Ireland, observes: “I ride my bamboo bike to work every day and to town to buy stuff I need. I enjoy riding it because it’s smooth and well built. This bike is great. It’s useful to me and my colleagues, who also enjoy it because I see a number of them riding their bikes to work.”
That said, the bamboo bikes still need some mechanical fine-tuning. The pedals, for example, are not the most durable and usually the first part to have problems.
Volunteer Sarina Thiel from Germany points out another kind of complication. “The bikes are good, but the only problem is that they attract unnecessary attention from the community every time I am using it because the bikes are so unique!”
SYTO and Bamboo Bikes Limited look forward to the day when this sustainable form of transport is less of a head-turning novelty item and more of a norm.