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Africans Mold Bamboo into Cargo Bikes

Published March 2, 2009

BY MATT WIEBE

WATSONVILLE, CA—When Craig Calfee saw Ghanaians ride imported steel bikes ill adapted to handle the heavy loads they carry through native forests of bamboo, he was exasperated.

He asked himself: Why would anyone want to pay the cost of importing a bike when thousands of them are literally growing in Ghana’s bamboo forests?

Calfee has pioneered bamboo bike production at his company, Calfee Design, in Northern California for years. He’s an ardent evangelist of bamboo’s suitability as a frame material, and recently launched Bamboosero Bikes, a bamboo bike development project.

“Bamboo has huge potential for bikes and seeing what David Peckham is doing with his Village Bicycle project in Ghana got me excited about bamboo’s potential there,” Calfee said.

Over the past year-and-a-half Calfee has flown to Ghana three times to train framebuilders on how to harvest, cure and make bamboo bikes out of local bamboo. Only a handful of bikes have been made so far, but Calfee is confident that the project is gaining momentum.

“The potential for this is huge. There is no reason Ghana’s bike needs cannot be met by local bike builders using Ghanaian bamboo,” he said.

Bicycle aid projects depend on bikes imported from India and China. These bikes are often produced by impoverished workers with the goal to lift the bicycle recipients out of similar economic conditions.

Imagine walking into a bamboo forest and cutting the tubing to make a cargo bike that can be sold to provide yourself an income and your neighbor their major source of transportation and revenue.

On his first trip Calfee brought a bamboo cargo bike designed to carry 400 pounds of cargo. The Ghanaians who saw it and saw how it could carry two adults on the back were impressed. Being familiar with bamboo, they immediately understood the concept and asked Calfee, “We can make it here? Please show me how to do it!”

In addition to teaming up with Peckham, Calfee works with Suzanne Hartley, a Peace Corps volunteer, and the government of Ghana’s Bamboo and Rattan Development Program.

“We are setting up cottage industries, where one skilled framebuilder works with helpers to produce frames. In time, as people are trained, bamboo bikes can be made in volume,” Calfee said.

Building a bamboo bike is labor intensive. There is no getting around the handwork required to miter bamboo tubing or wrap a lug, so it works better as a cottage industry than in a large factory setting, Calfee said.

Making bamboo bikes doesn’t require electricity or a large investment in equipment. This keeps large industrialized countries from getting into the business and competing on an unfair level.

To grow the prestige of Ghanaian framebuilders and to help them fund their businesses, Calfee is creating a Web site, www.bamboosero.com, where builders can offer their frames worldwide.

A customer for a Ghanaian bamboo bike can log on to the Web site and select a framebuilder by their building specialty—cargo, mountain bike or road—and order a bike. The framebuilder will complete the frame and send it to Calfee Design for quality control and to complete assembly. Calfee Design then sends it to its buyer.

Internet-direct sales eliminates the middlemen, who take a cut of the transaction, so more of the money finds its way back to the builder.

Bike shops interested in the program can purchase frames, assemble them and sell the complete bikes.

“The whole point is to make it a sustainable venture. The builders have to make enough money to keep them interested in the project and to interest others to get into framebuilding so we can slowly build up the volume,” Calfee said.

“I expect the delivered cost of a Ghanaian-built bamboo bike would be around $900, compared with the $3,000 we charge for a Calfee Design bamboo bike. If the market can support a $900 Ghanaian bike, the builders will make enough money to keep them interested and we’ll be able to expand the idea into more countries,” Calfee added.

The Ghanaians harvest and cure local bamboo as well as process local fiber used to bond frame joints. The epoxy resin, bottom bracket, head tube, dropouts and forks are imported.

Peckham’s Village Bicycle Project currently uses imported bikes—usually donated used bikes. The program focuses on teaching people bicycle mechanics and business strategies so that students can start and run their own bicycle shop in a sustainable way. But keeping imported bikes well tuned is a perennial problem for bike aid projects.

“With Craig’s help we only have a few frames made, so we are nowhere near the volume I need for my program. However, I’m excited about the concept and see its potential, especially making cargo bikes, which is what is really needed here,” Peckham said.

Back in Northern California, Calfee is thinking about what’s needed for large-scale bike manufacturing in Ghana if the bamboo bike project takes off.

“Being able to grow bamboo to a consistent outside diameter would be a huge help when it comes to mitering tubes, as would growing specific chainstay shapes or being able to grow an entire frame subsection,” Calfee said.

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