Plainly Good Bicycles

A mechanic friend piecing together my new, more-portable and semi-backpack friendly Downtube folding bicycle. - Photo by Jane Austin

Bicycling is, for so many reasons, my favorite mode of transportation. To make a bicycle takes less resources than it does to make a car, to use a bicycle takes a lot less resources than to use a car, and, it’s also very healthy. My newest bike – a foldable bike – has gone long distances with me on planes, trains, and buses, so that I can always travel by two wheels when the opportunity arises.

The list of benefits goes on – from cargo transport, to the ease of transporting bikes themselves. As knowledge of the adaptability of bicycles spread, bikes are becoming tools for all sorts of trade, in all parts of the world, including generators, engines and pumps.

Add to that, that a bicycle is, mostly, a very simple machine.

An adapted bicycle/guatemalan coffee husker – photo by Robin Canfield

Sources of construction and maintenance skills are fairly ubiquitous around the globe, and thanks to new methods by organizations like Zambike, the resources to build bicycles have become more easy to attain as well.

Zambike is a social enterprise – a for profit organization that is doing real good. Located in Lusaka, Zambia, an area where average terrain is rugged terrain, the company manufactures normal, metal mountain bikes that are sold at an affordable price to locals . To help fund this process – not just the making of bicycles, but the place to build them and the training of Zambian employees – Zambike also manufactures high-end bamboo bicycles that are sold abroad.

Workers at the factory – Photo courtesy new.zambikes.org

“We were here on a university field trip and we organized a match against some locals. Afterwards we asked them what they did, and they said: ‘Nothing’. They didn’t have jobs,” co-founder Vaughn Spethmann told the BBC about starting Zambike, “So we decided to come up with a business which would be a source of employment and provide a useful product.”

In 2007, Zambike formed in Zambia as a collaboration of Spethmann and Dustin McBride with locals Gershom Sikaala and Mwewa Chikamba. Since that day the organization has grown to include over 40 local employees and they have worked with other bike makers and designers like Bamboosero and a.ker.fa to improve and expand on their bicycle line-up.

Zambikes Bamboo Frames Commercial from Russell Brownley on Vimeo.

Due in part to sponsored donations, Zambike has been spreading it’s easily-recognized bright yellow mountain bikes around Zambia. As the bikes prove their worth, more African markets are opening – this past month Zambike start  to ship bikes to Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Malawi.

A bamboo frame in construction – photo courtesty of new.zambikes.org

“Zambikes has distributed more then 8,000 bicycles, over 900 bicycle ambulances and cargo carts, supplied much-needed spare parts, sold over 200 bamboo bicycle frames world wide and have employed over 100 Zambians,” Spethmann wrote for SOCAP Europe this year, “Our products are saving and changing lives.”

Last year Zambikes International formed to help spread their bamboo-frame bikes around the world. Reportedly, the bamboo makes for a super-light, shock-absorbing frame.

“The design is relatively straightforward, though labor intensive. Three-year-old bamboo is cut, preserved, and cured for several months before being cut to size. The frame is then bound with wood glue and plant fiber cords soaked in epoxy, and affixed to the metal components,” reports Fast Company.

Mountain bikes and cargo bikes aren’t all that Zambike has been building for local use – the company makes Zamcarts – a compliment to their extended, cargo-carrying mountain bikes – as well as the Zambulance “designed to carry sick people to hospitals in places where other means of transportation aren’t adequate or always available,” Triple Pundit reports.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEcI9JHJpyE]

In the near future chances are you’ll be hearing more and more about Zambulances, and Zambikes in general, as Zambike takes the lead on this growing, sustainable market – but one small company can only grow so much bamboo, and can serve only so many people. Sure, Zambike could become huge, but I think what Spethmann and McBride have in mind is even better – they’re going to hand the company over to the Zambians entirely.

“It was never just about bikes. We wanted to give our workers practical skills and reward their dedication. We want to change lives,” founder Mwewa Chikamba told the BBC.

Traveling with Actuality Media, I have seen bamboo growing in many parts of the world where this type of industry would be a welcome addition – both for transport and for the economy – and I foresee the good that Zambike does spreading around the globe. And, of course, I very much look forward to trying out a bamboo bicycle.

Robin Canfield - Curator_of_Good

A co-founder of Actuality Media - an organization that takes students to developing countries to create documentaries about changemakers. There are so many more organizations that are deserving of coverage in the world that each week I blog about an inspirational changemaker that I would like to see more media about.

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